Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

Today’s SBD:  Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

Publisher/Copyright 2008, Houghton Mifflin

Genre:  Mystery

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.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

  1. Beth

    Hmmm… see this looks good, but I am naturally inclined against mysteries. But maybe I’ll pick it up at the swap and give it a shot. It does sound really intriguing. Will let you know if I read and what I think, of course!

    • I’d offer to send my copy so you weren’t out the cost of the book if you don’t like it, except it was an ebook. The mystery was the driving force of the book, but it wasn’t oppressive, if that makes sense.

  2. Oh, yeah, this really does sound like my cup of tea!

  3. I bought it. Looking forward to reading it.

  4. Pingback: December’s reading and 2011 wrap up | Shuffling Through A Bookless Desert

  5. I just finished this. Did you find the second one to be good as well? I enjoyed it a lot though I did end up finding some parts tedious. I have to finish packing but when I’m back in town I’m gonna swing on back over and see if you have a recommendation regarding the second novel. I’m so glad you posted on this; I don’t think I would have come by it otherwise and I really enjoyed it and the setting.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! Part of my enjoyment was that the setting was so different, even as I felt niggles about things that maybe could’ve been omitted or written differently.

      I haven’t read the second book yet, it’s still TBR. I’ve been slowly (painfully) clearing off bookshelves, and not reading much new lately.

      • So true with me, too!!! I definitely gave the book more leniency than I am used to due to setting. I didn’t realize at first that it was the start of a series and I wonder how the series will continue since the author really seemed to “blow the cultural wad” if that makes any sense. One thing that I couldn’t ignore was Nayir getting over his physical taboos. I thought his mental transformation was very believable but I didn’t buy how quickly he was able to have physical contact with Katya. For example, when he held her as she was crying I was bumped totally out of the scene. What did you think?

        My favorite line (p.125 of hc): “In a way it disgusted her – not having to worry about righteousness in your friends was one of the luxuries of being a man.” I thought this was a very natural thought for someone in the non-dominant group.

        I just put the second one on hold. I’ve been very wary and weary of series lately so I can’t guarantee I’ll actually finish the second one but I am going to give it a shot.

        Ah yes, the book clearing. That must pull at the heart strings. I have moved so often that I have only the tiniest stack of books that I want to get ride of and they are on paperbackswap. If they don’t get swapped before the next move they will be donated. Moving a lot means that things never pile up. 🙂

      • I had that same line about the luxury of being a man highlighted. Nayir’s abrupt transition from modesty (or maybe reticence is a better word) in terms of physical taboos and interactions with women was somewhat surprising to me, too, yes. And I wondered if there would be some sort of backlash or regret on his part in the next book. City of Veils is still TBR for me, I haven’t been in a mystery mood lately.

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