"You know," said Port, and his voice sounded unreal, as voices are likely to do after a long pause in an utterly silent spot, "the sky here's very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it's a solid thing up there, protecting us from what's behind."
Kit shuddered slightly as she said: "From what's behind?"
"But what is behind?" Her voice was very small.
"Nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night."
The Sheltering Sky chronicles a deadly odyssey into the midst of the North African desert and into the darkest and most sinister recesses of the human condition. The ultimate travel horror, it follows three Americans who have turned their backs on the northern hemisphere, on all things familiar and civilized, to burrow south and east into foreign sands and into a nightmare from which they never recover. The Sheltering Sky is, as Paul Hofmann writes in his introduction to the Penguin edition "a most unlikely story for an American to tell."
Book One - Tea in the Sahara
New Yorkers Kit and Port Moresby arrive in North Africa to escape the aftermath of the Second World War, accompanied by their friend Tunner who was asked along "at the last minute". The destination is Port's idea. Kit would have preferred to visit Europe but Port has persuaded her to settle for North Africa "with a carefully chosen collection of photographs." After ten years of marriage, they have drifted apart and are sleeping in separate rooms. Port hopes that the adventure will bring them back together and "strengthen the sentimental bonds between them" but their views on life - and on the desert - are poles apart. Kit is afraid of the desert, while Port is fascinated by it.
Before the ill-fated trio has even set out on their desert expedition, Port slips away in the middle of the night to a desolate quarter on the edge of the town where he spends the night with an Arab prostitute. Staying at the same hotel is a farsically odious English couple - Eric Lyle and his nagging "mother" - who seem determined to accompany the Americans on their travels. When the Lyles offer them a ride to Boussif in their car, Kit refuses and takes the train with Tunner. Port's infidelity is echoed by Kit who, under the spell of a suitcase full of champagne, finally succumbs to Tunner's charms.
In Boussif, Port's attempts to get closer to his wife are interrupted by the divisive presence of Tunner or Eric Lyle and thwarted by his own preoccupation with the desert and the "silences and emptiness that touched his soul."
From Boussif, they travel by bus to the fly-infested oasis town of Ain Krorfa. Tunner is easily persuaded to leave the less than welcoming "Carrion Towers" hotel with its "smelly rooms" and "mountain of reeking garbage" to travel with the Lyles to Messad. Kit and Port make their way to the French military outpost of Bou Noura alone. Port lusts obsessively after a blind dancer, and discovers that Eric and Mrs Lyle are not son and mother, but lovers.
Book Two - The Earth's Sharp Edge
In Bou Noura, Port discovers his passport is missing and accuses the owner of the hotel of stealing it. He later realises it was stolen by Eric Lyle. From Bou Noura they travel to El Ga'a where there is the threat of a meningitis epidemic. By the time they arrive there, Port is seriously ill and is barely conscious. Barred from the hotel due to the impending epidemic, Kit bundles Port into a truck heading for Sba. When they get there, they are met by the local French captain, Broussard, who identifies Port's illness as typhoid and provides them with shelter, soup and pills.
When Kit returns to her husband's bedside after meeting Tunner, who has tracked them down to Sba, she finds Port dead. Port dies alone, his own cry echoing in his ears as he reaches out 'to pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.'
Kit leaves Sba without telling Tunner. This marks a turning point in the novel which now follows Kit as she wanders further and further into the desert and "deeper into the empty region which was her consciousness, in an obscure and innermost part of her mind".
To Tunner's horror, the Lyles turn up at his hotel in Sba. Tunner catches Eric rifling through Port's luggage and beats him up.
Book Three - The Sky
Kit is picked up by a caravan of camel drivers led by Belqassim and his older friend. In a sinister "gentleman's agreement", they both rape her in what becomes a daily ritual. Kit becomes bizarrely attached to Belqassim, resenting him for letting the other man have his way with her. Belqassim disguises her as an Arab boy and takes her back to his house where he keeps her in a locked room. His other three wives soon discover the truth about their guest and, consumed with jealousy, attack her. A ceremony is performed in which Belqassim, much to the fury of the other women, makes Kit a fourth wife. When his longed-for visits to the marital chamber in which she is imprisoned become less frequent, Kit decides to escape. She barters the jewellry she has been given for the help of the other women who are only too pleased to see her go.
Kit, now sounding increasingly deranged, spends the night in a hotel with a stranger named Amar who tries to help her. Eventually she is handed over to the local authorities who arrange for her to fly back to Oran, on the Mediterranean coast. Her passage back to the United States is arranged by the American Consulate, but before she can be returned home Kit slips away and disappears.