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Sunday, 07 November 2010 02:00

Four Drunk Beauties

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
Alex Smith's third novel, Four Drunk Beauties, interweaves two stories - one of misery and survival, the other of plenty and adventure - and offers the reader a rollicking and intriguing experience.

Dying in an infamous Iranian jail, two men - Drew, a spy, and Kamaal, a turncoat - share fantastic stories about four fabulous, larger than life women - the Beauties of the title. Theirs is a riveting tale inspired by the patterns and inscriptions of Persian carpets, an ancient prophecy and a well-guarded secret about the existence of a powerful army of soldiers on a centuries-old mission. The Beauties' out of this world adventure allows the suffering prisoners to transcend the grim reality around them as they follow Elvira, Lou, Mimi and Adriette on their quest to organise a wedding, solve a horrific murder mystery, and uncover a plot to overthrow the Iranian government. With its many twists and turns their tale could have come straight out of a modern version of One Thousand and One Nights. Not surprisingly, Four Drunk Beauties reveals itself ultimately as a novel about the power of the story to transport the listener or the reader into imagined worlds - a power which in Drew's and Kamaal's case can also defy death.

Smith is a consummate wordsmith and the treasures of Iran - its legends, places of interest, landscapes, tastes and smells - come to life through her exuberant storytelling. She is also a fearless writer who enjoys exploring and subverting literary conventions. In this respect, Four Drunk Beauties might seem bewildering, even alienating, to some readers, but those tired of stories about apartheid childhoods or South African expatriates returning home will enjoy the freshness and unpredictability of Smith's writing.

Smith's previous books, Algeria's Way and Drinking from the Dragon's Well, were set in foreign places (Spain and China respectively), and in her latest work she again exhibits a remarkable skill of capturing a foreign setting into her narrative in a way which captivates the reader. Mostly unobtrusively, she brings an astounding wealth of knowledge about Iran, its history, mythology, geography, and cultural heritage, into the narrative, which inspires one to find out more about the country and its people, known in the Western world for all the wrong reasons.

Four Drunk Beauties reminded me constantly of the adventure of Charlie's Angels and Indiana Jones and could possibly lend itself to a wonderful silver screen adaptation. Smith must be commended for the novel's crisp originality, and her publisher for their willingness to publish outside of beaten tracks.

Four Drunk Beauties by Alex Smith
Umuzi, 2010


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