Saturday, November 29, 2008

Book Review: Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris

From the Editorial Review on

Zoë Ferraris's electrifying debut of taut psychological suspense offers an unprecedented window into Saudi Arabia and the lives of men and women there. When sixteen-year-old Nouf goes missing, along with a truck and her favorite camel, her prominent family calls on Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide, to lead a search party. Ten days later, just as Nayir is about to give up in frustration, her body is discovered by anonymous desert travelers. But when the coroner's office determines that Nouf died not of dehydration but from drowning, and her family seems suspiciously uninterested in getting at the truth, Nayir takes it upon himself to find out what really happened to her.This mission will push gentle, hulking, pious Nayir, a Palestinian orphan raised by his bachelor uncle, to delve into the secret life of a rich, protected teenage girl -- in one of the most rigidly gender-segregated of Middle Eastern societies.

Initially horrified at the idea of a woman bold enough to bare her face and to work in public, Nayir soon realizes that if he wants to gain access to the hidden world of women, he will have to join forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner's office. Their partnership challenges Nayir, bringing him face to face with his desire for female companionship and the limitations imposed by his beliefs. It also ultimately leads them both to surprising revelations. Fast-paced and utterly transporting, Finding Nouf offers an intimate glimpse inside a closed society and a riveting literary mystery.

When I was in 7th grade, there was the possibility that my father's job would move us to Saudi Arabia. I'm not sure how close we were to actually going (my guess is not very). To my 12 year old self, moving to Saudi Arabia was my emancipation from my super-competitive, clique-laden middle school in boring, affluent suburbia. I was ready to board the next plane; my bags were packed.

We didn't move, so I can only speculate how different my pre-teen and teenage years (and beyond) would have been had we done so.

Finding Nouf, an impressive literary debut by Zoe Ferraris, an American who moved to Saudi Arabia with her then-husband in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, is the story of 16-year old Nouf who has similar feelings of being trapped - in this case, by her rich family and a culture of arranged marriage. Despite her culture (and almost in defiance of it), Nouf creates a secret life and carefully plans a very different future for herself. While doing so, she is murdered and the novel becomes centered on Nayir and Katya, who are investigating the circumstances of Nouf's death.

This novel is different from my typical reading fare, both in its setting as well as the mystery genre. Favorable reviews abound on various book blogs, on Amazon, and on, and mine is no exception. I enjoyed this tremendously. This is an impressive debut from Ferraris, who gives the reader a view of modern day Saudi Arabia. I found the character of Katya especially intriguing, as she has earned her Ph.D. and works, CSI-like, as a forensic examiner. All the while she complies with conventional Saudi norms of having a driver and wearing a burqua. I don't know enough about the culture of Saudi Arabia to know if Katya is authentically-portrayed but I'd like to believe such is the case.

Finding Nouf moves at a solid pace, keeping the reader intrigued. At one point, it seems fairly simple to ascertain who killed Nouf, particularly after a crucial aspect of one of the leading character's lives is revealed. Ferraris' talent as a writer shows the most in these pages as she picks up the pace and keeps the reader engrossed, rewarding him or her in the end with an unexpected plot twist.

Definitely worth the read if you enjoy quality literary fiction and psychological suspense. I give this 4 stars of 5 (and that's only because of having to stop and think too much about the chronology of the events leading up to Nouf's disappearance and eventual murder). I look forward to read more of Zoe Ferraris' work in the future.

If you've read or reviewed this book, feel free to leave a link to your review on your blog or website in the comments section.


Wendy said...

Thanks for giving me the heads up on your review of this book - it definitely looks like a book I am going to enjoy reading. Terrific review of it!!

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

You're welcome, Wendy, and thank you too. Hope you enjoy it!