The name’s Bond, Lulu Bond

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Lulu in Marrakech By Diane JohnsonI like a good book in which cultures collide and if that book is set in a city that I know or about which I want to know more, then so much the better. I was scavenging in Borders on the day before they closed for good. Picking amongst the bones of the poor selection left on their shelves, I came across ‘Lulu in Marrakech‘ by Diane Johnson. It promised a bit of romance, a little spy-thriller action and some cultural insights, all from the pen of an ‘award-winning author’. I put it into my already very full basket and headed to the tills.

Lulu Sawyer must surely be one of the most unlikely and unbelievable of CIA agents. She’s already done an assignment in Kosovo where she met Ian Drumm, a businessman who just happens to own a property near Marrakech. Her cover story – of being the rather lazy dilettante girlfriend of this wealthy man – is supposed to put her in a position to investigate how money is being channelled from wealthy donors into the coffers of terrorist groups. Quite how she (or the CIA) envisage that a life of sitting by the pool drinking cocktails and going shopping is going to open up insights into the world of terrorism is unclear – to me, to Lulu or even it would seem to the local intelligence agencies. What is believable though is that she’s really rather good at being a rather lazy dilettante girlfriend of a wealthy man. Perhaps a bit too good at it – what’s her job and what’s real life? Just because you’ve got your spy kit and ciphers doesn’t make you a spy.

Ian’s house is rather more grand than Lulu expected. It’s a sort of unofficial artists enclave where his friends and invited guests are cloistered in a compound in the countryside outside the city having oodles of dinner parties and drinking too much. It doesn’t seem to be a hotel as there’s no hint that money every changes hands, but it’s peopled by people with a lot of time on their hands. There’s an English poet (described by Johnson as a ‘laureate poet’ which suggests she doesn’t know what that means) called Robin and his heavily pregnant posh English wife Posy who either went to Oxford of Cambridge. The trouble is that Lulu wasn’t really paying attention and can’t remember which it was – and it wouldn’t be rude to ask. Lulu love, you’re supposed to be a spy. You can’t even retain a teensy bit of factual information. Artists on sabbaticals come and go, whilst Ian’s chief assistant/servant Rashid is roped in to drive Lulu and Posy back and forth to the city for cocktails and shopping. Friends drop by for performances of Shakespear and drinks parties but it’s all a bit vague about who they are and how they come to be there, but those questions just aren’t asked. Come on Lulu, aren’t you just the littlest bit curious? Almost every character is a cliché – the British are bumbling snobs, the French are sophisticated and well-dressed snobs, the Americans are black and gay. It’s like Johnson bought the whole lot from central casting.

Outside the compound there are some other potentially colourful characters – an English lord and lady Sir Neil and Lady Marina Cotter who are in need of a nursemaid for their grandchildren; Tom and Strand the fabulously gay mixed race American couple with their adopted daughter Amelie (surely there’s more to be said about that in any country but especially in Morocco) who own a tea shop in the city, a rich Saudi man and his very beautiful but dissatisfied Ameican-educated wife, and a French Algerian girl being rescued by a French real estate agent from a brother who wants to kill her to protect the family ‘honour’. As I said, these are all ‘potentially colourful’ but Johnson leaves them poorly sketched in shades of grey.

“Lulu in Marrakech is a book that doesn’t seem to have worked out what it’s trying to be and consequently fails to be much of anything.”

Part of the problem with Lulu is that she doesn’t seem to have the sense she was born with. If the man you love and have gone to live with gave you your own room, wouldn’t you suspect that the relationship wasn’t entirely ‘normal’? When the same man is having surreptitious meetings with the wife of another man, would your first assumption be that they must be planning the husband’s birthday party? She’s supposed to be a trained intelligence officer but that’s the problem with Lulu and her silly little girl name, she’s just not very intelligent. At first you think that maybe she’s just hiding it well but aside from booking the odd hotel and hire vehicle and a botched attempt to copy a key with some moulding wax, you’d have to conclude that Lulu probably spent her time in her CIA training sessions filing her nails or thinking about what to make for dinner.

Johnson uses the book as an opportunity to rail against perceived injustices whilst failing to spot that Lulu’s activities are not entirely whiter than white. We get an interesting insight into how to go about getting a virginity test at the doctors (thanks, but I didn’t feel that much wiser – other than learning how to fake it) and a lot of pontificating about injustice but next thing you know, she and a bunch of other agents are planning a ‘rendition’ mission with tragic consequences. Mind you, Lulu probably thinks ‘rendition’ is what you do round the piano at a dinner party.

Lulu in Marrakech is a book that doesn’t seem to have worked out what it’s trying to be and consequently fails to be much of anything. That Diane Johnson has twice been a finalist for Pulitzer Prizes and three times for National Book Awards seemed pretty ludicrous – but that’s what the writer profile claims, and who am I to argue. She apparently splits her time between Paris and the USA and her love of French is apparent in the large amount of (untranslated) French phrases used in the book which will no doubt irritate the heck out of anyone who doesn’t speak French or doesn’t remember what they learned in school. I can only hope that one adventure for Lulu will prove to be enough and that Johnson isn’t planning on sending this ludicrous sleuth off on any further missions. She’s not fit to stroke Blofeld’s cat let alone call herself a spy.

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Lulu in Marrakech
by Diane Johnson

One Comment on "The name’s Bond, Lulu Bond"

  1. Expat 21
    22/01/2010 at 22:33 Permalink

    I live in Marrakesh and had a chance to read this book during the summer. I thought it was a great book.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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