City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris
This is the first novel I’ve read set in modern day Arabia. It gives a tantalising glimpse of life in Jeddah, particularly how men and women live, and combines that with a complex crime story.
The mutilated body of a woman is found on a beach. Detective Osama Ibrahim initially suspects it is another housemaid murder, something that happens all too often in this city.
Osama had once been very proud of the country’s murder rate – it was one of the lowest in the world. He had always believed that the harshness of their punishments had the intended deterrent effect. But that was before he’d joined homicide.
However, one of the forensic lab techs, Katya, a young woman who is quietly ambitious, discovers that the body was no servant, but that of Leila Nawar. Leila was a student and was making a secret film project about sexual attitudes and exposing the contradictions prevalent in this society.
Katya is determined to be part of the investigating team, and when Osama needs a female to question Leila’s best friend, for propriety forbids him from doing so, she’s in. However, she continues on with the investigation outside work with her friend Nayir, a desert scout.
Katya stood just outside the entrance to the station. It was lunchtime and her burqa was down so that no one would recognise her. She didn’t want people to start asking questions if they saw her getting into Nayir’s Jeep. Is that your husband? Why do we never see him pick you up after work? The only problem was that with her burqa down, Nayir might not recognise her either.
Meanwhile an American woman arrives in Jeddah to be with her husband, and finds him missing. Eric had shunned living in one of the compounds where most ex-pats reside, and Miriam finds herself stuck in a flat in a country where she can’t go out unattended and is at her wit’s end, presuming Eric to have gone native. When Katya and Nayir turn up asking questions linked to Leila’s murder, it seems Eric may have been involved in something bad…
City of Veils is Ferraris’s second novel, and shares the same main characters as her first, Night at the Mi-raj (called Finding Nouf outside the UK). I didn’t know that when I read it and it didn’t matter. Within a few pages, I was swept up into this different world and fascinating culture. I confess I am totally ignorant of the way that Muslim families live in Saudi Arabia; the way that men and women live apart within the same houses for most of their lives, only coming together as man and wife; also the difficulties facing women who want (or need) to work.
Osama is an enlightened detective, having a touch of the maverick about him in his work. He is not afraid of his superiors in picking Katya out of the labs to assist in the investigation. His home life is becoming complicated though and that’s a different thing to handle. Nayir is a complex character. He’s falling for Katya (and she for him), and being devout, shouldn’t even look at her – he’s conflicted and you fervently hope that they will find a way through the social and religious minefield that can allow them to find each other.
The combination of strong characters, a fascinating setting, the different culture, and the lure of the desert, made this an irresistible summer crime read. I will definitely read the author’s first novel, and she has a new one out now too. Members of our book group agreed, all having enjoyed it. With its setting and angle focussing on the rich society in which its characters live such ordered lives, it made for a good discussion. (9/10)