Novelist Diane Johnson, known for her finely written commentaries on newcomers in foreign cultures, has turned her eye for human follies to Morocco's European expatriate community.
The title character in Lulu in Marrakech is a lost soul who thinks she has found her calling as a low-level operative for the CIA. Apart from memorizing manuals on intelligence collection, she has had little training. She is in Marrakech as the houseguest of a British businessman. Having fallen in love with him, she hopes, but never articulates, that they will marry. She does not reveal to him her sideline occupation. This odd juxtaposition of calculating intelligence gathering and romantic fantasies make Lulu a somewhat less-than-steady character, and her cryptic hindsight insights lend the book a sense of menace.
The community of British and French foreigners she spends her time with is baffled, alienated and at times repulsed by the Muslim culture around them while predictably unaware of their own shortcomings. Lulu makes sweeping statements of her disgust for everything from the local treatment of women, a huge undercurrent of the novel, to their love of bargaining. At the same time she suffers politically correct discomfiture at such feelings. Johnson lets the reader in on the irony of these leisure-bound, man-dependent women so scornful of their man-dependent Muslim counterparts.
Lulu fumbles her way into potentially important information, but the lack of communication among her local contacts, her CIA contact and other intelligence agencies creates a mess of suspicion that leads to tragedy. There is plenty of room for misunderstandings not only between Christians and Muslims, but among the Europeans as well. That, perhaps, is the greatest irony of all. It doesn't take much to alienate one another, and when nothing is ever discussed, nothing can ever be resolved.
Tammar Stein is the author of "Light Years," an ALA best book for Young Adults, and "High Dive," which was recently nominated for the same award.