Tuesday, December 19, 2023

"The Emptiest Quarter"

Raymond Beauchemin was born in Western Massachusetts and has lived in Boston, Montreal and Abu Dhabi. He currently lives in Hamilton, Ontario. He has worked as an editor for the Boston Herald, Montreal Gazette, The National and the Toronto Star. He is the author of Everything I Own, a novel.

Beauchemin applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, The Emptiest Quarter, and reported the following:
From page 69:
There is a seam, you said, that runs south from Iraq. It is a vein full of oil, black gold, that will lift the people of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, all of us here in these desert lands, out of poverty. You stopped, looked up and around at the tents, the dunes farther off, the sky. When you return, you will not recognize us, insh’allah.

You said this with sadness. As if you knew the cost of progress even then. When you return, the barbaric splendour with which the West associates us will not be so barbaric anymore, and splendid Abu Dhabi will be as indistinguishable from a British village as these oilmen are from the agents who accompany them.

You stopped. Then you looked at me as if I, an eleven-year-old British girl of no consequence, could understand all your worries and more: the apprehensions and anxieties of an entire nation. There was such trust and confidence in the way you looked at me that for a moment I believed I could do just that. Your lips spread in the slightest of smiles. You offered me my cup.

I have something for you, you said after taking a sip of your coffee. You reached into your pocket and came out with a jess. You tied it around my right wrist. The leather was rough against my skin, but the gesture was smooth and kind.

We do have hope, you said. We have tomorrow, insh’allah. And we have Allah.

Alhamdulillah, I said.

You must have caught my delighted surprise in myself. You laughed. I laughed. Then you poured us a second coffee.
First, a caveat. The Emptiest Quarter is a collection of three novellas set in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates: “Tent,” “Oil” and “Identity.” Page 69 falls within “Oil.”

The novellas are connected enough, however, in theme, locale and even incidents that have reflections in the other novellas that the page 69 excerpt above is a good indicator of what a reader will find in the book.

There’s the promise of oil riches in 1938, when this segment takes place, and what that will mean to future generations of Emiratis. This struggle with progress comes back within the “Oil” novella; the question of the location is central to “Tent” and identity to, obviously, the last novella.

There’s also love, for country, for one another, for causes. The eleven-year-old British girl narrating the segment of “Oil” where we find page 69 is falling in love with the “you” character she is addressing, though over time finds that the love she thought she felt for him was actually a love for the country, the oases, the souqs and wadis, the sands and the people who make up what became the U.A.E. This love of country is evident as well in the other novellas.

Not that it’s all pretty. There are tensions among the desert peoples in “Tent,” international and economic issues in “Oil” and 21st century/modernization struggles in “Identity,” including the notion of a free press and a kidnapping during the Arab Spring in Syria.

What I found interesting and coincidental about the Page 69 Test is that the text here lands at about the ten percent mark in “Oil,” a turning point in the novella leading to its inevitable denouement and conclusion. You can read more about this structure of novel and storywriting in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.
Visit Raymond Beauchemin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue