According to Forbes, in 2021 a quarter of the world’s 2,755 billionaires live in just ten cities. They are Hangzou at 10, San Francisco, Mumbai, London, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Moscow, Hong Kong, New York, with Beijing at number one having the largest number of billionaires 100. Surprisingly, the city where this month’s second book review is set, is not there. Dubai (10 Billionaires – Arabianbusiness.com) has a population of over 3 million, of which eighty five percent are foreign nationals. It is home to the tallest building in the world – The Burg Khalifa, which has featured in one of the most successful movie franchises, and that movie’s most iconic scene forms a small part of the storyline. Also, when you compare Dubai to the other top ten cities above, none of their police forces cruise around in top of the range super cars. Although there is a lot that cannot be done there, that you can probably get away with in most of the others. PDAs for example, swearing, and failure…The book is Diving for Pearls by Jamie O’Connell and published by Doubleday (www.penguin.co.uk) on the 3rd June.
When the body of a Muslim girl, the daughter of a rich influential Emirate family is found floating in the marina in downtown Dubai, the lives of six people from various backgrounds are altered. Each one has come to Dubai, drawn by its bright lights, warm weather, and the promise of a new Life. Trevor a young Irish man who is hoping to escape a troubled past, Lydia a Russian sex worker trying to outsmart the system. While Tahir, a Pakistani taxi driver, dreams of a future for his children back home. Then there’s Aasim, the brother of the victim, who desperately tries to deal with the grief while also hiding who he really is from is family, and finally an Ethiopian maid, Gete, begins to carve out a new life. But Dubai breaks its promises, and in a city of mirages, where the cultures of East and West collide, how do you find your way out…
Wow, I have just spent the past week reading this book while enduring a mini heatwave in Ireland. So, at times I really felt like I was in Dubai, albeit even if I were reading it in October or January, I’d probably feel the heat coming off the page. That’s not all that drips off the page, there’s the glorification of wealth and its trappings and the lifestyle that are part and parcel of this city, courtesy of O’Connell’s writing.
The book is a guaranteed page turner from the prologue all the way to the end of the epilogue, three hundred and thirty-two pages later. What you get inside this book is a gritty and harrowing expose of life, behind the glare of the skyscrapers, the opulence, and the heat. While also dealing excellently with the topic of emigration and how we struggle to find ourselves in a new environment, while adjusting to its cultural differences.
What we discover about the pearl of the UAE, is unlike most of bright, glamourous cities around the world, which have a triple class system, Dubai essentially has two, the Rich and the poor. Although there is a subclass in the rich grouping – according to one of the characters in the book, “no matter how wealthy you are, there’s always someone richer”. While the poor are the maids and waiters, bell hops and taxi drivers who eke out a living, making sure that the needs and whims of the wealthy are met, while accepting the varying degrees of mistreatment as part of your lot.
But it is under the draconian religious rules by which the city and UAE is governed, that all citizens are essentially equal as they fearfully try to toe the line. This is where O’Connell’s story flourishes as the six main characters deal with the ripple effects of the death of this young girl and the dramatic turn of events it will have on their lives both directly and indirectly.
As for the character themselves, each is depicted with such depth and realism that you can almost feel their pulse, the heat and sweat running off their bodies and the hurt and pain they feel from this event and having to deal with the authorities. This depth allows the reader to sympathise with them and their varying situations.
Another great thing about this book is the death itself and the mystery that surrounds it, O’Connell allows the reader to draw their own conclusions as to how or what led to the girl’s untimely demise, for the main premise is the repercussions, and even after you turn the final page, you are left to wonder about the next chapter for all concerned.
This is the debut novel of Irish writer Jamie O’Connell (@jamieoconnell). Previously he has had short stories “Highly Commended” by the Costa Short Story Award and the Irish Book Award Short Story of the Year. He’s also been longlisted for the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines Short Story Competition and shortlisted for the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. Jamie has an MFA and MA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin and has worked for the likes of Penguin Random House, Gill Books and O’Brien Press.
There are no downsides to this book, only the anticipation that I’m feeling already for Jamie’s next book. In this one I have found an author who has seamlessly moved from short storyteller to novelist and is now perfectly at home among the stable of new Irish writing talent. Before that, this book may have just jumped to the top of my book group selection for November.
So, if you are looking for a brilliantly written book for your weekend reading or staycation beach read, then dive into your wallet and order a copy online or head down to your local book shop and snap up a copy.
Reviewed by: Adrian Murphy
This review is part of a Random Things blog tour, to see what the other reviewers thought. Visit their blogs listed below. Then, if you get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought. We would really appreciate the feedback.