Today’s SBD: Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris
Publisher/Copyright 2008, Houghton Mifflin
Finding Nouf is the first of two mysteries (so far) in which Katya Hijari and Nayir Sharqi investigate the deaths of women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Bought a Kindle copy of this book after finding a copy of the later book, City of Veils, while browsing at B&N. (FWIW, if they’d had a paper copy in stock, I would have bought it there but they only had the second book on the shelves, and I wanted to start at the beginning. #lostsale)
When sixteen-year-old Nouf goes missing, her prominent family calls on Nayir Sharqi, a pious desert guide, to lead the search party. Ten days later, just as Nayir is about to give up in frustration, her body is discovered by anonymous desert travelers. When the coroner’s office determines that Nouf died not of dehydration but from drowning, and her family seems suspiciously uninterested in getting at the truth, Nayir takes it upon himself to find out what really happened.
He quickly realizes that if he wants to gain access to the hidden world of women, he will have to join forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner’s office who is bold enough to pursue the investigation on her own. Their partnership challenges Nayir, as he confronts his desire for female companionship and the limitations imposed by his beliefs. Fast-paced and utterly transporting, Finding Nouf is a riveting literary mystery that offers an unprecedented window into Saudi Arabia and the lives of men and women there.
Finding Nouf is narrated primarily by Nayir in third person, with a number of scenes also narrated by Katya; Nayir really is the key to this novel though. He’s not a Bedouin, although he wishes he was. In many ways, he is an outsider in Saudi Arabia for all that he has lived there for most of his life – he is Palestinian by birth, and has almost no family. He’s unmarried and longs to be married but lacks the familial connections normally used to find a spouse. He is in love with the desert and makes his living as a guide, and yet he lives in on the sea in a boat.
The mystery here is complicated by the fact that the victim, Nouf, is a woman, and the lives of women and men are strictly separated in Saudi Arabia, and Nouf’s family is very conservative and traditional. When she disappears, it’s believed at first that she has run away to the desert, which prompts her family to ask Nayir to find her and bring her back. Unfortunately, only her body is found. The medical examiner declares her death accidental, but Nayir is uncomfortable with that finding, as is Katya – who is the fiancée of Nouf’s brother, Othman, and a lab employee in the ME’s office. What follows is Nayir and Katya separately piecing together what evidence they can find, and then working together uncomfortably to find Nouf’s killer.
Nayir as narrator is fascinating to me: he gives a glimpse into strict Islamic culture and its simultaneously protective and stifling treatment of women. At the outset, he truly does not understand how anyone like Nouf — pampered, wealthy, indulged — could possibly be unhappy with their life. The use of a defunct zoo within the plot was a great metaphor, I thought.
As Nayir and Katya learn more about what happen the day Nouf died, and Nouf’s real self is revealed, he struggles with his perception of women and their role in their culture.
Something greater was crumbling inside him, the wall that held the strength of his beliefs, and it hurt to feel himself weakening, to feel this much sympathy for women like Nouf who felt trapped by their lives, by prescriptions of modesty and domesticity that might have suited the Prophet’s wives but that didn’t suit the women of this world, infected as it was by desires to go to school and travel and work and have ever greater options and appetites. He tried not to feel that the world was collapsing, but it was collapsing, and there was nothing he could do, just watch with a painful, bitter sense of loss. (p. 296)
Katya, too, does the same, although it’s clear from the outset that she’s already pressing against the boundaries of her life by working outside the home and actually using her education (Ph.D. in molecular biology).
Given how strictly Nouf’s life is contained, some of the things Nayir and Katya learn about her are shocking. And yet the identity of her killer has to be within that strict circle. Ferraris did a very good job of hiding and then revealing whodunit – I didn’t see it coming at all and had come to suspect someone else entirely.
Would recommend. Am planning on reading City of Veils in the future.
Other possibly relevant info: this is Ferraris’ debut novel. It appears to have been received well as general or lit fic by mainstream media and review sites.