Murder and police procedure, romance and gender roles, are themes that aren’t unique in literature. But set them in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, sharing the perspectives of conservative and liberal Muslims and American ex-patriots, and the story unfolds in intriguing, provocative and surprising ways. CITY OF VEILS is the sophomore outing of American author Zoë Ferraris and revisits several of the characters from her award-winning debut, FINDING NOUF.
"Zoë Ferraris is bold in her appraisal of Saudi culture but still open-minded and respectful."
When the body of a young would-be filmmaker, Leila Nawar, washes up on the beach, it is immediately apparent that her murder was particularly brutal. Detective Osama Ibrahim is soon on the case, bringing a clear and open-minded intelligence to the investigation. Leila's prosperous and controlling older brother seems a likely suspect, but it is her young cousin Ra'id who disappears after the first interview with the police. Just as the work on Leila's murder case begins, Miriam Walker, an American, returns to Saudi Arabia and to the husband from whom she has been apart for a month. But soon after arriving back at their apartment, Eric Walker disappears; with few resources, no Arabic language skills and a distrust of the Saudi police, Miriam is paralyzed with fear.
Detective Ibrahim's steady, methodical approach to the case allows the work of the passionate young coroner's office lab tech Katya Hijazi and her love-stricken friend Nayir Sharqi to take center stage --- both in terms of solving the murder and in the novel’s drama. Katya and Nayir have been friends for a while, but in a culture of segregation between men and women and strict moral codes, their relationship, fraught with romantic and emotional tension, is challenged. Katya is bold and headstrong, and longs for a job with the police department as an investigator. Her work on Leila's case with Osama could be her opportunity to prove herself. Nayir is a deeply religious, sensitive and compassionate man whose feelings for Katya conflict with his beliefs about propriety.
While Osama's conflict with his wife about having children and Miriam's search for Eric are important, not to mention the investigation of Leila's murder, the tension between Katya and Nayir as they each --- separately and together --- get drawn into the case and as they try to negotiate and define their own relationship drives the novel. Nayir, despite his concerns about Katya's professional ambitions, wants to marry her, and Katya, despite her reservations about Nayir's traditionalism, is drawn to him. Woven into the story are ideas about the veracity of the Qur'an, gender roles in the Islamic world, the lives of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, religious hypocrisy, and the power of attraction in difficult socio-cultural circumstances.
Zoë Ferraris is bold in her appraisal of Saudi culture but still open-minded and respectful. Her characters are more finely drawn here than in FINDING NOUF, and the plot is more complex and interesting. From unexpected lingerie stores to American compounds, from police stations to the Empty Quarter in a deadly sandstorm, CITY OF VEILS is exciting and well-written with compelling characters, a fascinating setting and nicely crafted plot twists. Ferraris manages to make Saudi Arabia at once exotic and familiar, and this novel solidifies her reputation as a talented mystery writer able to manage a literary style with broad appeal.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 27, 2010