During the prologue of Red Desert, we get a visual impression of just how dangerous the oil industry can be. A team is sent out on an operation and during what should have been a routine scout of the local land, there is an accident. A figure steps out in front of their vehicle, causing it to swerve off the road and directly into an unexploded mine. Everyone is lost, but was it an accident or deliberate?
The money is good, that is a given but would anyone really consider a job in a war-torn country simply because of the increased income advantages?
Tom avoided thinking about the “blood-drenched” side of Iraq when he took the job with the oil company. Convincing himself he would be far removed from the horror of the battle-scarred country. Reflecting now that he has touched down, it is easy to see that a week in Dubai training for this was no match for the real thing.
As a psychotherapist, he was employed by the insurance company to assess the mental state of those going outside the camp. He had told them that he was interested in the role because of the money but the truth was he wanted to get far away from home, he needed to flee London. So if he was running away surely others would feel the same as well.
‘Iraq seemed the perfect solution’.
When Tom was interviewed in London by Jean-Baptiste he was won over by the appearance of the man who would go on to become his boss. Tanned and well-kept, he looked healthy and so all the concerns he had about travelling to a troubled country washed away. That first impression crumbled as he walked into the medical centre on day one. Jean-Baptiste looked the exact opposite. He looked tired, drawn, pale even. What had happened to cause this transformation in such a short amount of time?
Where people in the camp, who had opted to be there, look haunted, Tom quickly noted that the Iraqi people demonstrated resilience. Due to war and persecution, this is was a group of people who quite rightly should have felt hatred towards others, but every person that Tom met was almost nonchalant towards death as it had become just another everyday occurrence. They have a philosophy that everything that happens is god’s will and therefore there is a lack of questioning about any incident that takes place – something that Tom really struggles with.
Once Tom starts his sessions with the oil workers there is clear evidence of mental health issues – anxiety and depression – but it seems that no-one interviewed wishes to engage in further counselling sessions. Why is that? Are they wary of him? Are they concerned that his reports will go back to their employer and be used against them?
While Tom is trying to deal with his own demons and come to terms with his own losses, there are several fatal incidents in and around the camp.
Firstly, just days before his arrival, a contractor commits suicide by hanging himself near one of the company’s newer sites. Then there is the awful accident out in the desert where the vehicle is taken out by a mine and finally, a third man appears to have accidentally drowned in a pool of toxic, contaminated water. Is it all simply a coincidence?
Before Tom, it would appear that each of these incidents would have been recorded as misfortunate but not linked. Tom, however, wants to look deeper into what is happening and therefore goes to speak to the one person who should be looking into each of the tragedies, a man called Ridley.
Ridley is the Chief Investigator on the camp but openly admits that he is simply treading water until he can go home, never to return again. He has done more than ten years and is tired of it, but has he become blasé to what is happening around him? Before Tom can explore this further with him, he dies; has a suspected heart attack. Is this just another coincidence?
It seems that the only person willing to try and get to the bottom of this is Tom, but will he succeed or is he more likely to become another fatality for prying too much?
My Thoughts on Red Desert
Having never listened to an audiobook before it is only fair for me to say that I didn’t really know what to expect. I have never found auditory activities very enjoyable but felt that I needed to see why this form of reading has become so popular.
I recently watched Elle Berthoud on one of Damian Barr’s online sessions where she asked the audience to think more about what kind of reader they were – auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic. It made me think more about how I absorb a book and whether there was only one way for each person to do so.
What I discovered is that the audio delivery allowed for more vivid images to flow through my mind. By listening rather than reading each word for myself I could visualize the characters and their surroundings more unencumbered.
However, whilst I enjoyed the narrative and the narrator, when he switched into dialogue sections of the story the accents became confusing. Characters often merged together as if it took him a few sentences to be able to differentiate their accents which did cause my attention to flounder at times. That’s not to say that the story is not worth listening to, I am simply highlighting how I became distracted at the time.
There was also a section in the novel early on that ironically highlighted that many people prefer the tactile act of reading a newspaper over listening to the news and how much more enjoyable it can be, causing me to reflect on my own experience further. Would I prefer reading this novel physically to listening to it? On this occasion, I would have to say no.
What the audio version of this book allowed for was a level of consistency in the narrative. While there were several dodgy accents playing out, I became accustomed to them, and ultimately thought that I visualized the characters far more than I would have if I had physically read the book for myself.
Red Desert has several layers to it – underneath the storyline of an oil company setting up shop in the desert, the narrative explores the topics of how people deal with PTSD and death in a non-clinical way. It is a book that explores compartmentalizing rage and anger and how sometimes we cannot control our feelings regardless of how much pain exploring this may cause. It is a novel that demonstrates different situations and experiences traumatize people in individual ways and no-one should be ashamed of that.
Have you listened to Red Desert? What other audiobooks would you recommend?
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