Review

Finding Nouf

by Zoë Ferraris

Life in Saudi Arabia is notoriously opaque. Closed to most
outsiders and with women covered and often kept isolated, it is
hard to imagine, much less penetrate, the social and personal
customs and daily lives of the people who live there. First-time
author Zoë Ferraris takes readers inside Saudi society with
her exciting novel, FINDING NOUF. It is a tale of secrets and
sensuality, propriety and identity --- and it is a good mystery as
well.

When a teenage girl disappears from her isolated family home, a
search is quickly organized. Fearing she was kidnapped, but lacking
a ransom note, her parents and her many siblings and cousins are at
a loss. Nouf ash-Shrawi seemingly vanished into the harsh desert,
taking with her only a camel by her side. Could she have run away
hesitant about her upcoming marriage, or feeling stifled by the
religious laws and traditions that demanded modesty and
subservience? Her brother Othman brings in a trusted friend to
investigate. Nayir ash-Sharqi, along with his Bedouin comrades,
begins to track Nouf, but her body is found at another site.
Nayir's search continues, however. He hopes to solve the mystery of
her death, understand the family he has known for so long and
challenge himself personally and professionally.

Nayir is lonely for a real connection and longs for a wife and
spiritual partner. He is strangely attracted to Katya Hijazi, a lab
tech also working on Nouf's case. But her forwardness embarrasses
him and forces him to rethink his beliefs about men and women and
gender roles under Islam. He and Katya learn that they share a
curiosity about Nouf as well as a relationship to the Shrawi
family. The two continue to investigate Nouf's death and uncover
her secrets, including a mysterious American who promised her a
life of freedom in the U.S. But it is not easy work figuring out
who killed her and why.

FINDING NOUF is a well-crafted mystery with several logical
suspects, plenty of doubt and dead ends, a compelling corpse and
likable investigators, in addition to a unique setting. The Saudi
Islamic culture is, in fact, more than a setting; it is fascinating
and very important to the tale. Yet it never distracts, and
Ferraris never makes readers feel ignorant or like tourists. She
brings us neatly into the worlds of Nouf and Nayir.

Ferraris also deftly plays with symbols and themes. The desert
is a character of sorts, almost unknowable, revealing its secrets
to those with patience. The evil eye crops up now and again to
offer protection and signify tradition. For Nayir, a coat bought at
the market on a whim acts like a talisman and allows him to don a
new layer of self to confront the case and work with Katya. Many of
the characters are outsiders to the rigid and traditional society
in which they are living: Othman is the adopted Iraqi son of the
Shrawi family, Nouf is passionate and curious in a world where she
is expected to be quiet and restrained, Katya is educated and bold
and seems to some immodest, and Nayir is a Palestinian raised by an
uncle as a quasi-Bedouin in Saudi Arabia. Each searches for
acceptance and peace but often finds danger, discomfort or worse.
Perhaps, though, Nayir can find happiness once he puts Nouf's case
behind him.

FINDING NOUF is a solid debut. It is interesting, smart and
never falls back on easy answers or simple stereotypes. The
characters are finely portrayed, and the strict Islamic culture is
shown honestly but with great respect. Nayir is the Saudi man we
don't commonly imagine: traditional yet kind, religious yet
sensitive. The book is more literary than many murder mysteries but
just as entertaining and is sure to please readers who wouldn't
normally pick up a mystery. Saudi Arabia is a country most of us
will only travel to in books, and Ferraris's story brings it to
life for readers with a well-told narrative.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011

Finding Nouf
by Zoë Ferraris

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0547237782
  • ISBN-13: 9780547237787