Friday, June 4, 2010

"Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris

Summary: When Nouf, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family goes missing in the desert, Othman, the adopted son of family, asks his friend Nayir, a desert guide, for help in locating her.  Although Nayir is unable to find her and Nouf's dead body is soon discovered by others, Nayir finds himself inexplicably drawn to the case.  What would cause a teenage girl, about to be married, to run off into the desert?  Nayir quickly meets Katya, Othman's fiance and a medical examiner.  Despite Nayir's reluctance to associate with a woman, the two begin working together to solve the mystery of Nouf's disappearance and death.

Musings:  Finding Nouf has a lot of interesting things going for it.  First, it's an old-fashioned who-dun-it mystery in the unique setting of Saudi Arabia.  Nayir and Katya's investigation is limited by cultural boundaries: the expectations of courtesy between families and the taboo of unrelated men and women associating.  But for some reason, the book just didn't quite sit well with me.

Nayir, a gentle and modest man, is the obvious hero of the story.  Much of the book is based on his growth.  In the beginning, he is appalled at women appearing before him without being covered by a burqa, and he is shocked at Katya's brazenness in speaking directly to him.  In fact, a significant part of the book is spent on the restrictions on women's lives and the way in which Nayir has been conditioned to both fear and underestimate women.  The country is severely gender-segregated, and it was difficult to read about the many ways women are subjugated through ensuring that the sexes are never able to have normal interactions.  As Nayir works more closely with Katya, he begins to reevaluate his beliefs and understand women's lives and restrictions for the first time.

Nonetheless, I couldn't connect with Nayir.  I did not understand his obsession with the case; he never appears to work during the course of the book and spends most of his time investigating Nouf's death, but why?  He also seemed inconsistent.  In the first chapter, he is shocked to see Katya without a burqa and insists on asking questions to the male medical examiner, rather than Katya, who is the one talking to him.  However, at the end of the chapter, he asks Katya, who is examining Nouf's body, if Nouf was a virgin.  I find it hard to believe someone so unaccustomed to speaking to women would be able to ask a woman he had just met a sex-related question.

I also didn't understand much of the investigation.  It would seem to me that the most obvious suspects in Nouf's death would be her family (especially in a society where women had no rights), but that potential culprit is mentioned sporadically.  Clues fall into Nayir and Katya's hands so methodically that it felt like I was in a video game, collecting the necessary pieces before I could advance to the next level.  And not only does the book end with the cliche "detective confronts the killer and explains just how the killer did the crime while the killer becomes more and more nervous and then bursts out confession," the explanation of the crime's execution still failed to make much sense to me.

I loved the setting and concept of Finding Nouf, but I never found myself immersed in the story or the characters' lives.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

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