What Lies Beneath the Burqa
City Of Veils - Zoe Ferraris
Member Name: fizzywizzy
City Of Veils - Zoe Ferraris
Advantages: An absolutely fascinating look at Saudi culture; great characters; gripping story
Disadvantages: A couple of minor flaws
At the same time the Jeddah police are investigating the murder of a young woman found washed up on the shore. Horribly mutilated, it's assumed at first that the woman is just another housemaid, there being so many that end up dead, but Katya, a persistent forensics officer discovers her identity and, for lack of women in the Saudi police force, takes a more prominent role in the inquiry. The victim, it turns out, was a young film maker called Leila who was interested in highlighting issues around women's rights in the country. Could this controversial project have led to her death?
On the front cover of my paperback edition of "City of Veils", the Independent's Joan Smith describes Zoe Ferraris's novel as 'truly original, modern crime fiction at its very best' and I can't disagree. I read oodles of crime fiction and, although this novel isn't perfect, it is quite simply the most original thing I've read in the genre for years. I picked it up because of the setting, unaware that it's the second in a series, but it sits well as a stand alone and there's just enough of the background to quickly get to speed with the characters and how they've come to be where they are.
Superficially I'd have said I knew what Saudi Arabia is like and I knew well enough how women are treated and how they are expected to behave but I'd never really stopped to think about the implications that has for living a 'normal' life. You often hear people talking about the strict laws of the countries of the Middle East; the premise that you'll be alright as long as you follow the rules is one that's commonly heard but Ferraris shows here why that isn't as easy as it sounds, particularly in Saudi Arabia. When Eric goes missing Miriam finds that being a woman in Saudi Arabia is even more difficult than she had thought before. Eric hadn't wanted to live in a compound with other ex-pats so the couple had rented a house in a less than salubrious area of the city. Unable to travel indepedently, Miriam has to rely on taxis to take her to her husband's place of work, a male dominated office where nobody wants to help her.
Katya is a rare example of a woman working in the male dominated Saudi society. Interestingly women do work in the Saudi police force, but only really because convention dictates that men should not be carrying out autopsies on women or interrogating female witnesses. However, to be able to work, Katya has to let her boss and colleagues believe she is married. She doesn't lie outright but she allows them to believe that her friend Nayir is her husband. Ferraris doesn't have to shout to make her point; time after time the reader is shown more ways in which Saudi society is so unfair and contradictory. The dead girl was the sister of a wealthy businessman, the owner of a successful high end lingerie shop. No women work in a shop that is selling intimate items of clothing for women. A recently enacted law had stated that only women could be sales assistants in such stores on the grounds that it was improper for men to be discussing such matters with women who were not their wives; however, the law had been largely ignored because men had argued that, women being forbidden from going out shopping alone, it was men that bought most lingerie on behalf of their wives and that it would not be right for women to be serving them in a shop.
Refreshingly several of the male protagonists are depicted as fair-minded progressive individuals even if they struggle to put their beliefs fully into practice. Nayir was, for me, the most interesting of all the characters. He's in love with Katya but fears that a subconscious remark he made has pushed her away for ever. When Katya asks him to help with the investigation he hopes that he can persuade her to forgive him. However, it won't change the fact that Katya is a modern, working woman, something that the rather conservative Nayir struggles to accept. On the other hand, Katya's boss, Osama, a man who believes himself to be very forward-thinking and understanding of his wife's wish to have a career, has to ask some searching questions when he discovers why his wife hasn't produced a second child.
As fascinating as all this is, "City of Veils" is a crime fiction novel and for the main part it's gripping, well executed stuff. The investigation into Leila's death is a clever and competent police procedural that relies heavily on forensics and I liked that way that the investigation is influenced by what is practical and acceptable under Saudi conventions. Another cover note claims that the novel offers 'competition to Stieg Larsson from an unexpected quarter'; he's an author increasingly cited in book reviews but other than the tenuous connection that both authors feature strong women at odds with the world around them, it's hard to see how the claim is relevant.
My heart sank a little when some copied papers showing pages from the Qu'ran are found during the investigation into Leila's death. For a moment a 'Da Vinci Code' looked on the cards and the story headed down a path that focused too heavily on the history of the Qu'ran. For some reason this element of the story tails of unexpectedly and though I was grateful for this in terms of my own interest, it is a short-coming of the novel that what is given so much weight is inexplicably abandoned. One could also argue that the characters are a little too introspective, spending rather a lot of time in self anaylsis; certainly Ferraris has gone to town on setting the scene and presenting the contradictions of the cultural norms though, personally, I found this expose of Saudi society, especially the domestic sphere, totally rivetting.
Ferraris knows Saudi society; she lived for a time in a very conservative society in Jeddah and during that time she became well acquainted with what is a society with well known but hidden truths. What I appreciated is the way she describes not only the rules by which women are forced to live, but the ways in which young people are using modern technology to circumvent them. I've seen for myself rows and rows of young people chatting with the opposite sex in internet cafes in very conservative parts of Turkey but even I was amazed when Katya discovered Leila's bluetooth burqa.
I'd recommend 'City of Veils' to anyone who enjoys reading about other cultures, especially Islam. The crime element is secondary and readers who focus mainly on crime fiction might find this one a little flawed; however I would say that the distinctive and unsual setting does add a highly original slant which more than makes up for the faults. Needless to say I bought the previous novel as well as the follow up to this one. It's safe to say I'm hooked.
Summary: Original crime fiction set in Saudi Arabia