You know a book is good when you ache to get back to it because the characters demand your attention and you need to know what's going to happen next. That's how I felt about City of Veils, Zoe Ferraris' novel about love and murder set in Saudi Arabia. Written in taught, seamless prose, City of Veils is a first-rate mystery, but it is also so much more.
As the story opens, a young woman's mutilated body washes up on a beach outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At first the police think she must be another housemaid; the foreign workers are the women the most found murdered in the area. It soon becomes clear such is not the case.
Meanwhile, Miriam Walker is returning to Jeddah from a month-long visit to her family in the United States. She and her husband Eric came to Saudi Arabia for a year for his work as a security guard. Miriam is not looking forward to her return, because she and Eric do not live in one of the compounds where most Americans live; he insisted it was safer and more authentic to live among city natives. Instead, they live in an apartment in town where Miriam is a virtual prisoner, because she knows no one and women going out unaccompanied risk stares from men and being stopped, perhaps jailed, by the religious police. Minutes after bringing Miriam home from the airport, Eric goes out for takeout…and doesn’t return. One of Miriam's worst nightmares becomes a reality.
Back at police headquarters, Katya, a lab technician, and one of the few women who work for the police, searches the evidence for clues about the unidentified female murder victim. Katya is good at her job, but looking for more. When she decides to investigate the murder on the side, she asks her friend Nayir, who shows up unexpectedly, for help. Katya and Nayir have not seen each other since solving the mystery in Ferraris’s first novel, Finding Nouf.
And here’s where the various strands of the narrative start to merge and pick up speed and intensity. Ferraris does an excellent job integrating cultural issues into her who-done-it. She creates empathy for her Muslim characters while realistically depicting their lives. As a reader, I first found the restraints imposed by Muslim religious law quite frustrating, but somewhere in the middle of the book I began to accept them for what they are: the social milieu of the characters. Their concerns became real to me, and their actions more understandable.
At the same time, Ferraris shows that hiding women’s bodies from men will fend off temptation or prevent serious crimes against them. She also depicts the characters who choose humane action as opposed to strictly adhering to custom with the greatest sympathy and allows some religious characters come to question the role of law in their lives.
I highly recommend City of Veils for readers looking for a book that is both sensitive and entertaining. In fact, it should be required reading because it opens up a world that Americans need to understand.
First published by Writers News Weekly