In the Empty Quarter, G. Willow Wilson; Soneela Nankani, narrator (Brilliance Audio, $1.99, digital download, 1.5 hr., unabridged) January 2021.
In this short story, Great Neck NY housewife Jean accompanies her oil exec husband to a city in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in the 1950s, believing that her self-perceived openness to the culture and her association with a local prince makes her superior to the other ex-pat wives. A foolish accident in the desert outside the city leads Jean to an encounter with someone whom readers of Wilson’s novels Alif the Unseen and The Bird King will not only recognize, but will probably expect to turn up (at least, I sure did). This person brutally enlightens her about colonialism, racism, and feminism, shaking up Jean’s self-image and potentially offering her a new way forward. Soneela Nankani, who also narrated S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, turns in her usual excellent performance, believably evoking Jean’s naivete; the complex mix of kindness, exasperation, and contempt expressed by the prince; and the coolly detached viewpoint of the mysterious being Jean meets.
Whether or not you like this story depends on whether you enjoy narratives in which a 21st-century liberal and informed sense of ethics and politics has a blunt conversation with a considerably more blinkered perspective. There’s nothing in that communication that an intelligent person of today wouldn’t have thought, but Wilson is certainly excellent at putting it across, and those who agree will find it rousing. Others might find it didactic. I’m always glad for one of Wilson’s works, but I look forward to one of her more ambitious and poetical efforts in future.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
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