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Book Author: Zoe Ferraris

FINDING NOUF by Zoe Ferraris: Book Review

I don’t know of any other mystery series that takes place in Saudi Arabia. Author Zoe Ferraris has definitely found a niche of her own, and judging by her debut novel she’s doing an excellent job.

Nouf, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a fabulously wealthy Saudi Bedouin family, has been missing for several days when her brother Othman contacts his friend, desert guide Nayir ali-Sharqi, to find her. Nayir is in the desert with a search party when he’s informed that the girl’s body has been found by another family member.

Wanting to make certain that the body found is indeed Nouf’s, Nayir goes to the medical examiner’s office.  Nayir is upset to learn that the examiner, apparently following the family’s instructions, finds that Nouf’s death was a tragic accident; the examiner’s assistant, Katya Hizari, isn’t so sure.

Nayir is completely taken aback by Katya. In a country where a woman is forbidden to drive, where she needs her father’s or husband’s permission to hold a job, where there are religious police patrolling the streets to make certain that a woman’s face, hands, and ankles can’t be seen beneath her burkqa, the assistant examiner seems far too free for Nayir’s comfort.  What kind of a woman would work in a medical examiner’s office anyway, assisting at autopsies?

What was Nouf doing in the desert in the first place, Nayir wonders? How could she have left her controlling family, evaded her escort (a combination of chauffeur and guardian), stolen a truck and a camel from the family compound, and made her way to the desert, only to drown in a wadi?  And what about that bruise on her head and those marks on her wrists?

Nayir is a man who is ill-at-ease with women in general.  That’s not surprising in a society in which parents make matches for their children, men and women cannot eat together in most restaurants, and public beheading is the punishment for unmarried sex.  Nayir has no parents to make a match for him and no opportunities to meet women of his class, so it’s quite natural that his feelings about Katya are not very positive.  The only thing in her favor, in Nayir’s mind, is that she is engaged to marry his close friend Othman.

One of the mot intriguing aspects of Finding Nouf is the character development in both Nayir and Katya, but especially in the former.  As the novel begins Nayir is a rigid Palestinian/Saudi citizen, surprised and shocked by the most trivial transgression of Islamic law or culture.  But at the book progresses, and he is able to have what might loosely be called a friendship with Katya, he begins to realize that the walls between men and women in his country are harmful to both sexes and rarely lead to the warm family relationship that he himself desires but has no way of achieving.

Finding Nouf is one of the books I’ve read for the mystery course I’m currently taking, A Sense of Place:  Murder Mysteries ‘Round the World, in Brandeis University’s BOLLI program. The sense of Jeddah and the surrounding desert, Saudi Arabia’s unrelenting heat (hot enough to melt the heels of one’s shoes into the pavement), the different inter-personal relationships in Nouf’s Bedouin family, the incredible wealth of this oil-rich nation, and the low status of women are beautifully delineated.  I felt as if I had spent weeks in this country, going from the private island that Nouf’s family owns to the crowded souks to buy food and clothing, to the inhospitable desert where a sudden thunderstorm can bring death to the unwary traveler.

You can read more about Zoe Ferraris at her excellent web site.