Zoe Ferraris writes novels about modern life in Saudi Arabia and mysteries set in the same place: her novels are her mysteries, and her mysteries are novels. Finding Nouf was published in 2008 and City of Veils was released last week. Ferraris uses her first-hand knowledge of married life in a Saudi Arabian family and her capacious skills at imaginative storytelling to write books that open up a closed world and allow a reader to enter at will. She is neither condescending nor condemning in her presentation of life under Muslim rule: she reveals a kind of life most of us will never experience and it is by turns wondrous and intimidating. By building an unknown world around a very familiar genre - the murder mystery - Ferraris combines the strange and the familiar and comes up with something fabulous.
In both of her mesmerizing books (and I hope more are coming), Ferraris raises questions most of us have never considered, living as we do in a society where men and women mingle freely. We can get into each other's business, personal or professional, restrained only by individual and unregulated ideas of politesse and propriety. Absent stalking and a restraining order, we can talk to, ogle, and hook up with just about anyone we meet. Within minutes of meeting a new colleague or a new guy at the coffee shop we can find out marital status, taste in foods, books, and movies, and even sexual orientation. We take for granted such exchanges of information and the resulting easy bonding between friends and potential lovers. But if we lived in the gender-segregated world of Saudi Arabia, where contact between un-related men and women is so severely restricted that to even share a glance with a stranger is considered a moral breakdown, how would we ever befriend a person of the opposite sex, much less find a mate? Women living in Saudi Arabia have a life hemmed in and closed by restrictions but the men are also limited in their freedoms, and particularly in perhaps the most important pursuit of happiness, the search for love.
But Ferraris' novels aren't just about love under Islam; what makes them so wonderfully engaging is how she uses the vehicle of a murder mystery to explore all the ramifications of a society separated by gender and ruled by restrictions. Where so many human activities are criminalized, men and woman hold secrets close to heart and reveal little, if anything, about themselves. When a murder occurs - especially the murder of a woman - how does an investigation unfold? How is the past of the woman revealed, allowing for a solution of her untimely death, when her life was so guarded and hidden? If contact between unrelated males and females is forbidden, how does a male police officer do his work? Or a female medical examiner? What does a daughter owe her father? Her husband? Herself?
Finding Nouf was a good read and Ferrari's second novel, City of Veils, is even better. Once again, Ferraris deploys the characters of Nayir, a desert guide and devout Muslim, and Katya, crime lab technician, in a quest to find out the truth behind the death of a woman. In Finding Nouf, the murder victim was a seemingly naïve and privileged girl; in City of Veils, the murder victim is a woman who battled against the restrictions placed on her by culture and religion. Ferraris offers complex characters, fully-realized landscapes (the heat, the dust, the sun) and clever plots that twist and turn, eventually reaching resolutions that are ultimately sad (it is murder, after all) but absolutely satisfying. Not only is the identity of the murderer revealed but a woman is unveiled and allowed to speak, finally, for herself.