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Cambridge author Maggie James’s memoir recalls life in 1980s Saudi Arabia

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Cambridge author Maggie James’s new book No Way Home: A Novelised Memoir is an occasionally harrowing semi-autobiographical novel based on her own experiences of living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Cambridge author Maggie James. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge author Maggie James. Picture: Keith Heppell

Published in 2020, the book – which has received positive reviews on Amazon and Good Reads – tells the story of Kate Thomas, who travels to Saudi Arabia with her young son and daughter to join her architect husband who is already working there.

She lands a teaching post in a dysfunctional private school for Muslim expatriates and, facing a battle against administrative lunacy and a dearth of teaching materials, Kate must rely on her ingenuity to educate her pupils. On top of all that, daily life in Saudi proves to be a steep learning curve.

Maggie, a teacher herself – who was previously head of art at The Perse School – tells the Cambridge Independent: “It came out in summer last year, which was probably the worst time ever to bring a book out, because it was in the middle of lockdown and bookshops were closed and events were closed, so I had to forego my book launch and various other promotional activities.”

Maggie says that the book – her first – could have gone done the ‘A Year in Arabia’ path, like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence but she decided against that approach.

“The events that I was going to write about were over the five years I was there, so I thought the easiest way of tackling it was to turn it into a novel,” she notes. “Also, an event happened that made me think about events in subsequent years.

“We were in the desert, my husband and I and the children, and we were hit by a desert storm. Unfortunately, our daughter was not with us – she’d gone off to the car.

“So there was a time when we were desperately trying to find her, and in later years I thought what might have happened to her if we hadn’t found her... So the second half of the book, after the sandstorm, is about a parent’s search for the missing child.

“It’s true but not in the way that it actually happened – we didn’t permanently lose our daughter – but the rest of the book is bits of my life put in at the appropriate places, so it’s a ‘novelised memoir’. I remember Clive James saying that all memoirs are fiction and all fiction is based on memoirs. So it’s kind of relying on the past or that particular period of my life.”

Cambridge author Maggie James. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge author Maggie James. Picture: Keith Heppell

As reflected in the book, Maggie’s husband is an architect. “He got a job building huge buildings in Saudi Arabia, and eventually a new city,” she recalls. “I went along with the children and was fortunate to be able to get a job in a Muslim school.

“So we were there for five years, my husband was there for six years. The children were very young when we went and we came home mainly because our eldest boy, Tom, was going to secondary school. But the idea for the book has been in gestation ever since I got back, and I suppose the impetus to do something about it was when I read Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.

“She was there with her husband – I think he was an engineer – and she went along as ‘the wife’. She saw what a chaotic, bizarre, interesting and strange place Saudi Arabia is to live in, and wrote a book about it. It rang so many bells. I just laughed and laughed and thought, ‘Right, I must write about the experiences I went through as well’.”

Maggie, who has a number of ideas floating around for future books – including one on the Cambridge Spinning House – says No Way Home took her about six months to write.

“I think it was easy for me because I was recalling things as they happened,” she explains. “I did invent bits – some of it is pure fiction – but I think when you get going, you get stuck in. I’m retired so I’ve got plenty of time to do this!”

No Way Home is available now. For more information, visit maggiejames.co.uk.

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