Tuesday, 9 February 1999

Mary Napier: Forbidden Places (1981)

Edition: Collins, 1981
Review number: 204

At the start of Mary Napier's novel, you expect it to be just a standard political thriller about getting caught in a revolution - an Islamic fundamentalist, anti-Western one in a Gulf oil state. A large group of oil company employees, plus other Westerners, are taken out of the country at the last minute in an ancient Dakota. The real action begins hen this crash lands in Albania while making for Corfu. This is the Albania that existed while Enver Hoxha was still alive, a Stalinist regime when Stalinism was out of fashion, almost totally cut off from the rest of Europe, both East and West.

Forbidden Places is, then, a novel about Albania and, more specifically, the two passengers who are detained by the Albanian authorities. As Hoxha ages, various people in the Albanian government are looking forward to what will happen after his death, trying to set things up so that they will be in line as a possible successor. Part of these machinations involve a full survey of the mineral riches of Albania; though the country was known to have vast supplies of rare metals and ores virtually exhausted in other parts of the world, no survey had been made with modern equipment. So the presence on the plane of a mineral surveyor with a new portable surveying device (using ultrasonic pulses interpreted by a computer) was a valuable windfall. Part of the purpose of the survey would be to help determine the course of Albania's relations with the outside world, and the other detained passenger, a woman who had fled from East Germany to West Berlin in the seventies, is thought likely to be of use for negotiations with the Eastern bloc.

In many ways, though, the plot of Forbidden Places is not particularly important. Painting a portrait of Albania and the nature of the Albanian state in the early eighties are the main focal themes of the novel. Napier is particularly interested in the various different types of people - factory workers, senior politicians, Hoxha himself, security policemen, and the two foreigners' relationships with and reactions to them. It is a little difficult to tell if what she writes about Albanian society is based on anything more than supposition, given how closed Albania was; most of her characters are pretty much how you would expect people to be given their situation. In the end, it is the predictability of the characterisation which means that the novel doesn't rate above average in quality, despite its interest.

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