Despite the fact that the Middle East’s role in world affairs increases as each decade passes, most Westerners have only a hazy comprehension of the region’s culture and its people. And, ever since the chain of events that began with the September 2001 murders in New York City, what we do know is largely distorted by the media coverage that tends to deal almost exclusively with the terrorist segment of the Muslim world. That makes a novel like Finding Nouf, one that tells its story through the eyes of ordinary Saudi citizens trying to do the right thing despite the constraints of Saudi Arabian society, one of the more intriguing books of 2008.
When sixteen-year-old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her wealthy family’s isolated home, it is at first hoped that she has simply run away, perhaps suffering a bad case of nerves about her impending marriage. But an examination of her body after she has been found dead in the desert leaves little doubt that Nouf has been murdered and Nayir ash-Sharqi, a family friend and desert tracker who failed in his quest to find her before she died, feels both the guilt of that failure and a responsibility to determine exactly what happened to the girl.
Nayir finds a ready ally in Katya Hijazi, a lab technician who, like Nayir, is a friend of the Shrawi family (she is the fiancée of Nouf’s adopted brother, Othman) and who has been asked to keep an eye on the official investigation into Nouf’s death. But Katya is more than Nayir, a strictly religious Palestinian who has had only limited contact with Saudi women, knows how to handle. He finds her aggressiveness and willingness to display her face in all but the most public of venues to be shocking, especially when he learns that she is engaged to his good friend, Othman.
But even more shocking to Nayir is his realization that Katya’s personality and behavior make her so attractive to him that he has to continually remind himself that she is to be married to his best friend. Part of the charm of Finding Nouf is watching the relationship between Nayir and Katya evolve during their investigation into one of mutual respect and affection, something that neither could have dreamed would ever happen.
Nayir and Katya link their individual skills in a way that slowly uncovers the facts surrounding Nouf’s disappearance and death and, although what they find brings them dangerously close to disturbing truths about the Shrawi family, they remain determined to bring her killer to justice. Zoë Ferraris has created two very likable amateur Saudi sleuths who deserve a sequel, a hope that the book’s ending seems, in fact, to encourage.
Finding Nouf is a fun mystery that, along the way, allows the reader a look at ordinary Saudi citizens and their relationship to each other and to the wealthier class. It explores both the formal and informal relationship between Saudi men and women and wonderfully illustrates the pressures felt by both sexes in a society willing to deal out harsh punishment to those not strictly observing the sexual mores of Islam and Saudi Arabian culture. Zoë Ferraris has written a first-class mystery but what makes it special is the unique setting in which she has placed it. This one is not to be missed.
Rated at: 5.0