Finding Nouf was one of my choices at Hager Books on my recent trip to Vancouver. I didn’t have any specific recollection of having heard about it before, but it turns out that a couple of people I know (well, know virtually, anyway) reviewed it when it was newly out, so perhaps that’s why the title caught my eye as I browsed the mystery section. I always have my eyes open for books that might bring a new twist on the genre to my detective fiction course — I’ve gotten more than a few good ideas from comments here and on Twitter over the years, including the Martin Beck books (now I routinely assign The Terrorists) and Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress is also now a staple). Inevitably in a course like this we talk a lot about common tropes and conventions; we work through some of the works that established the ones that are now central to the various subgenres of mystery fiction, and then we look at how those conventions can be used to explore a range of different issues that extend a single crime into a broader investigation — Sara Paretsky looks at systemic crimes like sexism and corporate corruption, for instance, Mosley at racism and structural inequities, Ian Rankin at the kind of social and political conflicts that have led some critics to call his Rebus books contemporary versions of the Victorian “condition of England” novel.
It looked like Finding Nouf might do something similar by using its specific crime (the murder of a daughter from a privileged family) to explore social and cultural issues in its own context, contemporary Saudi Arabia. To some extent it does exactly that: finding out what happened to Nouf involves exposing not just the nature of her very restricted life but her feelings about that life, and they are not happy ones. The story of her attempt to escape to a new life is not really as interesting, though, as the effect discovering her story has on Nayir, a friend of the family whose skills as a desert guide lead them to ask for his help while she is still missing, and who keeps on asking questions about her fate even after the family has asked him to stop. Though I didn’t find Nayir’s motivation convincing (at times, the machinery necessary to keep the investigation moving forward seemed pretty creaky), I thought his character protected Finding Nouf — which in some ways is very predictable — from some of the clichés that plague books about “life behind the veil” aimed at Western readers. If the only investigator were his accidental partner, Katya, the novel’s ideology would be a simpler one of resistance to the oppressions of being a woman in Saudi Arabia. But Nayir is profoundly pious — the sections told from his point of view are permeated with prayers and suras from the Quran — and conventional about women’s hidden lives and faces, and he is presented very sympathetically.
Katya, who both works and readily unveils, challenges his expectations and feeds his curiosity about women, while the revelations about Nouf help him sympathize with yearnings for something different. Their work together reflects the divisions of Saudi life (he has greater mobility and access to outside spaces, but only she can enter the women’s private spaces), but the fact of their working together defies it, which makes Nayir extremely uncomfortable at first but which comes to suggest (even to him) the benefits of freer interaction and greater equality between the sexes. It’s their story more than Nouf’s, then, which carries real thematic weight. To avoid spoilers, all I’ll say about Nouf’s case is that there’s a degree of misdirection that plays rather cleverly (or so I thought) on the likelihood that Western readers would expect the crime to confirm her status as a victim of women’s oppression, whereas the truth — while related to the context of women’s narrow lives — is more personal than political. (In this respect Ferraris’s plotting reminded me of Elizabeth George’s in Deception on His Mind). It’s a salutary reminder, if you like, not to take our categories of good and evil too simply for granted, a lesson Agatha Christie also teaches when she plays on, say, our trust in nice country doctors.
Finding Nouf had a lot of interesting aspects to it, then, but as a whole package it wasn’t entirely successful. There’s the creaky machinery, which I’ve already mentioned. Then the writing struck me as uneven: some of it is interesting and evocative, and there are many interesting “insider” details about life in Saudi Arabia that were vivid without being cheaply exoticizing (I particularly appreciated the cardamom-flavored Chiclets), but there were also soggy cliches and overwrought moments that didn’t do the work I think they were supposed to of ratcheting up the novel’s emotional intensity (“standing frozen in the hall, her heart split in half and lying on the ground”). The pacing seemed slow, the discoveries a bit protracted, though the novel itself is not that long. I have been wondering whether (as Mark Athitakis asks here) Ferraris would have done better to write a straight-up novel set in Saudi Arabia instead of using the conventions of detective fiction, but on reflection I think it was a good instinct, given the potential of the genre to do the kind of exposé and critique Finding Nouf offers. It’s just harder than it looks to perfect the balance of form and substance, formula and novelty, that such a novel requires.
I can’t see myself assigning Finding Nouf in my class: it’s not interesting enough qua mystery novel for that. But I might try the second one in the series, just for myself, to see how Ferraris develops.