“As temperatures creep above 45 degrees the population of Dubai shifts and alters, shedding people, like a ptarmigan changes its plumage with the seasons.” Only a writer with an intimate experience of the city could describe Dubai’s summer so bluntly yet eloquently – and this familiarity with the UAE is evident throughout the pages of The Image of Her by Sonia Velton.
Velton, author of Blackberry & Wild Rose and a former resident of Dubai, released her latest book, The Image of Her, in July. The psychological thriller, categorised under the umbrella of upmarket women’s fiction, features the perspectives of two very different ladies: Stella and Connie.
Stella is a downtrodden woman living a modest life in suburban England, and has an overwhelmingly co-dependent relationship with her mother. Connie, meanwhile, is an expatriate living in Dubai with her husband and two children, enjoying the perks and privileges the city has to offer.
What do the two have in common? Readers find out about three-quarters of the way through the book, and it’s completely and utterly unpredictable. “The connection between Connie and Stella was the starting point of the book – I heard this thing on the news which was just so tragic and awe-inspiring to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I knew I wanted to write the book based on that connection,” Velton tells The National.
In the chapters written from Stella’s point of view, readers see Connie from the perspective of her Instagram profile. Stella obsessively takes in Connie’s life through the images she posts of her in Dubai, noting everything from her facial expressions and clothing to the number of likes and comments on each photograph.
“When there’s somebody who we want to find out more about, our go-to resource is social media,” explains Velton. “Connie is someone almost otherworldly to Stella, someone so glamorous, and with a lifestyle that she perceives as almost film star-ish. She’s got all these amazing photographs of her in beautiful hotels in Dubai, with swimming pools and just the sunshine – all of her photos are light and bright and sunny, and that all feeds into this image of Connie having this very idyllic life.”
Meanwhile, in Connie’s chapters, readers realise the reality behind those photos – for while she may look like she’s living a perfect life, Connie is in fact unfulfilled in her marriage and in her role as a housewife, and misses the productivity that comes with having a job.
“I have always been interested in the disconnect between the image that we present, and the person that we really are,” says Velton. “The photo you choose to put on your Instagram captures just one second in time, but what about all the other things that led up to that moment, and how somebody else could look at that and go, ‘wow, they must have such a great life’, but actually, behind that there could be some really troubling or even sinister things going on.”
What could these two women, who are polar opposites and live oceans apart, possibly have in common? Where do their paths cross? That question forms the crux of the reading experience, and the urgency to decipher the link that binds Stella and Connie together is what makes The Image of Her such an exceptional page-turner.
Velton’s literary accounts of the UAE are an added plus. She expertly depicts the multicultural fabric and desert climate of the UAE – from Connie’s experience hearing the call to the Isha prayer on Christmas eve to the description of the bougainvillaea bordering villas and forgotten frangipani flowers covered in sand and dust on backyard patios.
“I have spent eight years of my life living in this country and it is part of who I am now,” explains Velton, who now resides in the UK. “That experience has defined me as a person, and I think as a writer you’re always looking to draw on your personal experiences and to use them to lend authenticity to your writing.”
In describing one of Dubai’s malls, she writes that it is “cathedral-like, a shrine to consumerism, among fountains, potted date palms and spectacular light fittings”. Later in the book, Velton brings an older area of Dubai to life for readers: “Bur Dubai glows with the phosphorescence of commerce. The darkness of the evening is broken by the glitter of beaded saris draped round headless mannequins, hanging by the doors of shops filled with bolts of silken fabric in every pattern and hue.”
Readers acquainted with the city might wonder how Connie – a Jumeirah Jane, if you will – lands in Bur Dubai. After much persuasion from her husband, who points out they are the only family he knows who aren’t taking advantage of the “perk” of affordable and accessible household help, Connie decides to hire a domestic helper, Rosamie, and is introduced to other housemaids in the area – one of whom she helps out of a particularly sticky spot.
Velton, who lived on Palm Jumeirah, recalls hearing about a housemaid who was not being treated fairly or fed properly by her employer. This experience inspired her to weave a similar incident into Connie’s story. “I just remember feeling so powerless, really not knowing what to do, and very conscious of what we now call that ‘white saviour’ concept,” says Velton. “Ten years ago, we didn’t articulate it in the same way, but you still had that sense of ‘what should I do?’ and ‘what can I do?’.
"I was so delighted to see, in my research, that Dubai has made some really great progress in terms of the law. Going back 10 years, the law wasn’t there.” Velton previously worked as a human rights and discrimination lawyer in England, so it’s fitting that the lens she attaches to Connie’s narratives probes this oft-unexplored angle of life in the Middle East.
While the descriptions of Dubai will resonate with UAE readers, who might find commonalities with Connie’s story, we learn early on from Stella’s narrations that Connie’s Instagram activity stopped abruptly 51 weeks ago. What stops this halt in posts, and what prompts Stella’s infatuation with Connie, is a shocking revelation that will leave readers on the edge of their seats.