Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris.
Standing above the rug, he began to pray, but his thoughts continually turned to Nouf. For the sake of modesty, he tried not to imagine her face or her body, but the more he thought about her, the more vivid she became. In his mind she was walking through the desert, leaning into the wind, black cloak whipping against her sunburned ankles. - from Finding Nouf, page 2 -
Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide, is hired by the Shrawi family to locate a family member who has disappeared. Nouf, only sixteen years old and planning her wedding, appears to have run away into the desert. But when her body is found in a wadi and the coroner reveals her cause of death as drowning, disturbing questions arise. Nayir joins forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner's office who is like no woman he has ever met. Together they begin to piece together Nouf's last days and hours to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.
Finding Nouf is at its heart a mystery, but it is also more than this. Set in modern Saudi Arabia, the novel explores the role of women in a gender-segregated society which clings to its history while at the same time must address the changing views of the women it seeks to control and protect. Nayir is a devout man who prays regularly and wishes to follow the laws of Allah; but he is also a bachelor who fantasizes of one day finding a woman with whom he can share his life.
Nayir sipped his tea and marveled at the casual way that Muhammad had spoken of his wife. There had been no need to explain who she was, and telling Nayir her name was something else entirely. It put Muhammad squarely in the category of young infidel wannabe. Gone were the days of calling one's wife "the mother of Muhammad Junior"; today women had first names, last names, jobs and whatnot. He wondered how many men had known Nouf's name. - from Finding Nouf, page 97 -
Nayir's conflicted feelings provide the tension in the book. At first I disliked Nayir, finding him rigidly pious and chauvinistic. Ferraris does a remarkable job turning Nayir from a largely distasteful character to one the reader begins to respect. It is Nayir's growth as a man (who comes to see women as human beings with dreams, desires and individual strengths) which elevates the novel to more than a simple whodunnit.
Katya represents the modern Saudi woman -- a woman who has her own job and dares to speak to men not related to her. It is through her that the reader begins to gain a deeper understanding of Nouf -- a teenager from a wealthy family who yearns for freedom.
Zoe Ferraris once lived in Saudi Arabia during the time following the first Gulf War. At that time, she was married to a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin and was exposed to a culture largely closed to Americans. Knowing this about the author gave me respect for the perspective of this novel which although seen mostly through the eyes of the lead male character, exposes the dreams and desires of women living in a paternalistic society.
Ferraris' writing is clean and riveting. The core mystery (what actually happened to Nouf) has many twists and turns which kept me guessing right to the end. This is a novel I would classify as "literary mystery" as its focus is as much on its main characters (and their growth) as on the mystery which propels the story.
Readers who enjoy a good mystery, as well as literary fiction, will enjoy this look inside the Saudi culture.
Four stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".