A desert trip to cherish: Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand is an oasis of literary ideas

North Africa, the early 1970s. A man is being chased while suffering from memory loss – or is it madness? Or is he faking it to try to get out of whatever terrible trouble is on his trail?

Wolfgang Herrndorf’s ambitious, epic thriller is a novel of questions and fewer answers – a trait of which mystery fiction fans aren’t always a fan of. Then again, tidy resolutions aren’t easy to come by in the blazing sun in an unforgiving desert populated with killers, chancers, thieves and victims.

Herrndorf has crafted something special here. Unconventional, yes, but also incredibly engaging. As it becomes apparent that Herrndorf is a risk taker, Sand becomes even more exciting because the reader is kept at a distance genuinely not knowing where the narrative is going.

Along the way, Herrndorf weaves in a collection of intriguing characters that each circle the story like birds of prey while holding their own piece of the puzzle in a sort of John Le Carre kind of way. But really if there are any comparisons to great authors to be made perhaps the most accurate would be to say that this is as if Graham Greene took The Comedians and got Hunter S Thompson to take it out the brain-boiling wilderness for a spot of fear and loathing.

Sand is a novel in which there isn’t a single character that fully knows what is going on. It takes Herrndorf up until page 339 to acknowledge that perhaps the author doesn’t either and that he’s messing not just with narrative form but with us the audience. In a brief wink directly to the reader, he writes: “Difficult to say why they parked here, what they were waiting for and what they wanted. Perhaps it was just one of those coincidences that shouldn’t trouble anyone much in a novel and that in real life contributes to the invention of the idea of fate.”

Sand is a novel that explodes ideas of fate, bad luck, identity, greed and madness. Wolfgang Herrndorf is skilled at taking grand, familiar literary themes and zooming in to focus on something seemingly inconsequential, irreverent or even nihilistic to paint a richly detailed and alternate picture.

As such, the enigmatic Sand is the literary equivalent of a cactus: beautifully detailed, hard to get a grip on but sure to survive amid desolation and stand out sharply on a flat, monotone landscape where others sink into the dust.

Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf is out now via Pushkin Press.

Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf - Pushkin Press - book cover review 2

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