I read Miss Webster and Chérif back in July but then got a little side-tracked by family life and holiday activities and never got around to reviewing it, which is a pity, because the book is well worth looking into. It is similar to Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which is what attracted me in the first place) in that it deals with a lonely elderly character unexpectedly making friends with a person from a radically different culture, thereby bringing them face to face with their prejudices and forcing them to re-examine their values. However, Miss Webster and Chérif is a far less cosy book: its moral landscape contains more shadows and grey areas than Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and the resultant ambiguity raises far deeper and more uncomfortable issues.
Sharp-tongued, cantankerous Miss Webster lives alone and likes it that way. Though she is elderly, she desires neither company nor assistance, and definitely not pity! Estranged from her few remaining relatives and disliked by her neighbours, neither loveable nor loved, she doesn’t care, so long as she is left in peace with her books. Until the night her body grinds to a halt, leaving her utterly helpless. Previously so energetic and independent, she is now incapable of performing the most basic bodily functions without help, and vents her rage and humiliation by hurling abuse at the hospital staff. Only one man, a doctor with horribly deformed hands who is touched by grace, recognises the fear and vulnerability in the fierce old lady’s eyes and sets out to help her. Telling her that the root of her illness goes deeper than the mere physical, he sends her on a quest to find the one thing that will give rhyme and reason to her life and justify its continued existence. And so, taking his advice literally, Miss Webster reluctantly books herself a flight to Morocco.
Before Miss Webster has time to fully recover from the fatigue of the journey, she is whisked off into the desert by Abdou, her enthusiastic taxi driver/self appointed tour guide. Faced with the blinding heat, the endless flatness, and the immensity of the Sahara, Miss Webster feels as if she is trapped in a nightmare, and all her secret fears and more shameful misgivings resurface. This experience of the desert – such an apt metaphor for the aridity of her life – frightens her far more than the after-events of a terrorist attack near her hotel a few hours later. Miss Webster doesn’t change overnight. But in spite of herself, and much to her surprise, she finds herself unbending a little and somehow – she’s not quite sure how –getting involved in the affairs of Saïda, the manageress of the hotel where she is staying. So that when, back in England, a beautiful young man appears on her doorstep one night and says he is Saïda’s son, Chérif, she ends up opening her front door wide and inviting him inside.
In the village, Miss Webster’s decision causes uproar. It is just after 9/11 and the paranoia with regard to foreigners – especially dark-skinned and Muslim – is at its height. All of a sudden, everyone remembers Miss Webster’s age and recent illness, and is convinced that Chérif is, if not a terrorist, at the very least a con-man. Miss Webster makes herself his champion, marching into the thick of things and giving the bigots a scathing set-down. Before long, Chérif has moved in with her permanently and the pattern of Miss Webster’s life has changed completely. She has ADSL installed especially for him and hands over her car to him so that he can get to his classes more easily. When he gets home from university, they watch the news on television together and drink sweet thé à la menthe, and on weekends, he helps her in the garden.
But Miss Webster is an intelligent, educated woman, and despite the villagers’ malicious gossiping, she is not senile yet. She senses that there is something Chérif is hiding from her. There are times when he doesn’t seem to know his own name. And what is his link to Carmen Campbell, the mysterious blues singer who is wanted for murder? Is the reader even justified in thinking that Chérif’s behaviour is less innocent than it appears, or do such suspicions make him as narrow-minded as the villagers of Little Blessington? Dealing with such burning issues as the United States’ war against the “Axis of evil”, the heroism or culpability of suicide bombers, and a woman’s freedom to choose her own life, the story of Miss Webster and her Moroccan lodger brilliantly explores the fruitful exchanges and the misunderstandings that result from two such radically different cultures coming into contact with each other. And when things are finally brought to a head, it is to the hot sands of the North African desert that Miss Webster must return in order to find out the truth about Chérif and decide whether he is a lying, thieving imposter, or the greatest friend she has ever had.
© Florence Berlioz 2011