Sunday, December 28, 2008

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

My book club (really more of a wine and gossip club, but we do read...well, some of us do) chose Finding Nouf for our December book, and I found it riveting. Zoe Ferraris, an American formerly married to a Saudi, gives us a unique look at Saudi culture. The action begins with a search for a missing girl, but this is a mystery the way Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels are mysteries, which is to say it is a literary novel with a mystery at its core. Ferraris does a brilliant job of slowly unraveling the mystery amidst a portrayal of the extreme gender segregation in Saudi culture and its impact on both women and men. At first, I was put off by the point-of-view character being male--how can you look at the restrictions on women through a man's eyes? But Ferraris chose Nayir as her vehicle for showing how gender segregation impacts men, and it's fascinating. Nayir is naive in the way of women, uncomfortable when a woman speaks "brazenly"--that is, without a man first having spoken to her--and can barely think when confronted with the sight of a woman's ankle, much less her face. He is unmarried and frustrated by the ridiculous process of finding a wife. The story begins with Nouf's rich, influential family asking Nayir to look into Nouf's death after they've used their influence to shut down the official investigation. Katya, an assistant in the morgue and fiancee to Nayir's best friend Othman (adopted brother to Nouf), ends up helping Nayir. They struggle to peel back the layers of the family's secrets while avoiding the wrath of the religious police as they meet to share information.

There's an extensive amazon review detailing the "errors" Ferraris has made in matters of Saudi culture and geography. The geography doesn't bother me in the least--it's a novel, for heaven's sake! Does Ferraris really have to stick to the distances between cities in reality? Does it matter for the purposes of the novel that one can't actually take an overnight bus from Jeddah to Muscat? However, some of his points, such as the use of paid escorts (women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia), are more to the point. Googling, though, did turn up discussion of paid drivers for women in Saudi Arabia, so I'm not sure if things have changed since the reviewer lived in Saudi Arabia or if there are regional differences. Ferraris did stay in Saudi Arabia for almost a year following the first Gulf War, so she's not completely inventing the culture she describes. Times may have changed, or she may have made some changes for literary purposes. It's an interesting question, I think--since Ferraris is giving a rare glimpse into Saudi culture (possibly the only glimpse many of us will get), how accurate does she have to be? Does she have as much literary license as a novelist whose work is set in a more well-described culture? I don't think there's an easy answer, and several scenes ring so true (Katya moving her head from side to side to be able to see the contents of her purse, Katya sitting in the drawing room with her future in-laws) that they may outweigh nitpicky details.

Finding Nouf was a riveting mystery (though I wasn't quite satisfied with the resolution) set in a fascinating discussion of a strange culture. The discussion of the limitations on men and women was really interesting, and the development of Nayir's attitudes toward Katya was complex and well-developed. I highly recommend this book.

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