Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

Miss Webster and Shérif

Patricia Duncker
Bloomsbury (March 2006) 244 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 8277 7

reviewed by Ann Skea

"She was marched across the atrium to yet another security gate. The guards stood at ease, watching the shifting line of passengers, their hands on their machine guns."

Our first meeting with Elizabeth Webster is entirely uncharacteristic. She is uncertain, lost, and soon in tears--an "abandoned, fragile old lady" in a foreign airport, and unable to speak the language. Nothing in these first few pages prepares us for the fiercely independent, tough old bird, fluent mistress of modern swearing as well as classical French, who emerges from these pages a short time later.

But Elizabeth Webster has been ill. It was not a stroke or a heart attack, she just "came to a dead halt," was "beached," "crash landed in a desert." It was nothing anyone could really explain, but her doctor, an ugly man with hideously deformed hands who is equally eccentric and stubborn as Elizabeth, diagnoses a complex form of breakdown, something only the patient herself can explain and cure. He prescribes a journey, far away, to somewhere totally unfamiliar, but to a place where her beloved French language is spoken.

So, Elizabeth Webster travels to Morocco. And there, her strength returns and she again becomes "Miss Webster": sharp-tongued, fiercely independent, authoritative, and confidently dismissive of terrorism, bombs and politics, yet suddenly a little more open to new experiences. She is a wonderful, funny and believable character, very much in the mould (as she herself suggests) of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, but she lives in the 21st century world of rock concerts, mobile phones, computers, xenophobia and terrorism.

In Morocco, in the strange desert landscapes and in the unfamiliar culture, Elizabeth Webster encounters people whose lives, unexpectedly, will change her own. Back in her English cottage, and back amongst the neighbours she either loathes, ignores or wars with, she suddenly becomes landlady to a young Moroccan man who turns up on her doorstep and who, to her own surprise, she invites to stay.

Shérif is an enigma. He has come to England to be a foreign student at the nearby university but has not yet been formally accepted. Elizabeth Webster helps him to negotiate the initial hurdles, experiences first-hand some of the racism he will encounter in the local community, and becomes a sort of eccentric aunt to him. She is protective but aloof as she learns, not without difficulty, to share her house, her meals and her time with this charming stranger.

And Shérif, polite and thoughtful as he is, remains a stranger: even, at times, not seeming to recognize his own name. Elizabeth Webster becomes increasingly aware of this, and she notes Shérif's seeming lack of contact with his home and family and his deep absorption in TV news reports of war and terrorism, especially in his own Muslim world. It bothers her, but not seriously until, after a bizarre accident and news coverage of the fall of Baghdad, she decides to surprise Shérif by taking him home to Morocco for a brief holiday. The results are surprising, plausible but not always believable, and an interesting resolution to the story, and Patricia Duncker is a fine enough story-teller to carry it off.

Miss Webster and Shérif is a funny and absorbing story. Patricia Duncker's descriptions of the desert landscapes are superb, and her accounts of life in a modern English village (seen, of course, from Miss Webster's point-of-view) are caustically realistic and wry. With great skill, Drunker smuggles in some of the most serious issues of our time without ever becoming ponderous and, as one would hope from a professor of creative writing, this book is beautifully written, imaginative and enjoyable.


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