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Lulu in Marrakech
Lulu in Marrakech
Diane Johnson
Dutton Adult, 2008
307 pp., 25.95

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Reviewed by Elissa Elliott

Definitely NOT James Bond

Diane Johnson's new novel chronicles the misadventures of a CIA agent in the post-9/11 era.

Morocco: I imagine clear turquoise pools surrounded by lush courtyards, pink-washed stucco buildings with onion-shaped domes, the early morning call to prayer, and the clacking of palm fronds in the warm air. I imagine bustling markets, pungent smells, and chaotic streets. But I can't tell you for sure, because I've never actually been there.

So, the next best thing is to read about it.

Diane Johnson of Le Divorce fame has written a new book, Lulu in Marrakech, set in the post-911 world. Lulu is a thirtysomething HUMINT (human intelligence) CIA agent who travels to Morocco, ostensibly to visit her British businessman boyfriend Ian in Marrakech and to do a report on female literacy programs, but really to dig up information about the huge sums of money flowing through Islamic charities and European NGOs. Her employer has reason to believe that the money is being funneled to fanatical Middle Eastern groups to support jihad activities—suicide bombers in particular, including reparations for their families.

This is a book about displacement—culture shock, assimilation, and adaptation. Lulu arrives in Marrakech "a little frightened of Islam; after all that's happened, who isn't?" She feels guilt about being there under false pretenses, especially because she's deceiving Ian, but in the end, she rationalizes that it cannot be helped. She worries at her ineptitude and chafes at the insufferable waiting she has to do. "Things take time," she's told. ¬†She bristles at the realization that she will have to ingratiate herself with female groups—that the male world is closed to her. How can this be, that these women are still treated like dogs? She feels foolish thinking these thoughts, and convinces herself that everything is normal. She'll be fine.

While I won't give any of the plot away, the book revolves around a very real complication—namely how the innocent giving away of money by charitable people can be transformed into something deplorable—a shunting to other causes, such as terrorism or civil wars. The giver—you, the reader—has good intentions, but that's not enough. The receiving organization must be run by people who will distribute your donation appropriately.

When Lulu meets her contact, Colonel Barka, for the last time, he refers to an incriminating book of donors' names he's given her: "Probably your friend Ian's name will be there—who is so indifferent to human suffering as not to contribute something for the poor Saharawis, for the Iraqi refugees, for the dislocated of Darfur? You have heard the saying 'The bombs of Belfast were born in Boston'? It is a bit the same. The bombs of Baghdad are born in Marrakech, to be sure, though also in New Jersey, Cairo, Paris, London, Riyadh. It involves so many."

As you're reading this book—if you choose to do so—pay attention to the epigraphs to each chapter. They're taken from various CIA papers, the Koran, Shakespeare, Dickens, Francis Bacon, the Bible. And oftentimes, they provide commentary on what's happening in the story. The fun lies in the application. For example, Johnson is clearly inserting an admonition in this quote from Orhan Pamuk's Snow: "And now you've aired all your smug Western views, probably even having a few laughs deep down at our expense … but by inflicting your own naïve ideas on us, by rhapsodizing about the Western pursuit of happiness and justice, you've clouded our thinking." But where exactly is this barb directed? Maybe at Lulu herself.

Although Lulu is portrayed as self-aware (she knows she's gullible) on the very first page, I grew impatient with her as I made my way through her story. She misses several important clues, and there's seemingly a huge disconnect between who she's supposed to be—a CIA agent—and who she actually is—a rather inept detective. Could a woman like this really be hired to do undercover work? I don't think so. Unless you assume that the American government is careless and negligent. Hmm.

Or maybe Johnson intended the disparity—to show that most people cannot correctly decipher what's happening around them, often being subtly duped about their own and others' personas. And that's the challenge, I guess: are you living in reality or a candy-coated la-la land?

Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. Her book Eve: A Novel of the First Woman is due in January 2009 from Delacorte Press.

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