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The Ruins of Us - Keija Parssinen

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Paperback: 336 pages / Publisher: Faber and Faber / Published: 7 Jun 2012

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      04.04.2013 22:52
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      When the state says your husband can take another wife and keep your kids, what do you do?

      ~Secrets and Lies~

      What would you do if you found out that your husband of more than 25 years, the father of your two teen-aged children and the man for whom you gave up your family (shabby as they might have been) and your country, had a new woman? Get angry, call a lawyer, grab the kids and run for the hills? Any of those would be completely justifiable reactions but things are a little different for Rosalie. Her husband Abdullah is a wealthy man, well connected with a powerful family and - drum roll for the punchline - he's a Saudi living in Saudi Arabia and legally speaking he's not only entitled to take a second wife (or a third or a fourth, and with some flexible interpretation of the Koran, even more) but he gets the kids. No discussion, no debate, the kids stay with their father. And if the father dies, they go to one of his male relatives. The mother is an almost total irrelevance. The simple tale of boy meets girl, they fall in love, marry and move to Saudi Arabia is a little more complex than your standard 'mid-life crisis cheating husband' scenario.

      Feisty Texan redhead Rosalie was a wild child when she met Abdullah. She was working in a bar, studying part time and raising hell. He was charming, handsome and - the least believable part for me - she wanted to go back to Saudi and he was a route to achieving that. Unlikely as it sounds, Rosalie yearns for the desert kingdom of her childhood, the land where her oil-company father and her mother gave birth to her and raised her in the oil company compound. I struggled to believe any western woman would actually want to move back to Saudi but that's Rosalie's back story. Her children - Faisal and Mariam - are Saudi born and bred, living a privileged life within the obvious constraints of one of the world's most oppressive regimes. Mariam rebels by sewing beads on her abayah and writing a blog whilst Faisal is struggling to deal with the shame of having an American mother. He falls in with a radical cleric, rejecting his own ancestry and feeling ashamed of his mother's American roots and his father's drinking and womanising.

      ~The Penny Drops~

      Rosalie finds out what Abdullah has done when a jeweller recognises her name on her credit card and asks if she liked the anniversary present he supplied to her husband in December, an onyx pendant. Rosalie hates onyx and her anniversary is in the summer. The penny drops and she knows he has a second wife. It must be a very Saudi thing that this should be the first instinctive reaction. It soon turns out that the Islamic rule that you can have more than one wife but you have to treat them equally doesn't extend to being equally honest with the two. By the time Rosalie works out what's going on, Abdullah has been married to Palestinian Isra, glamorous wife number two, for over two years without ever quite getting round to telling Rosalie.

      Issues around her husband's state-approved infidelity are soon sidelined when things get much more complicated. A family friend and fellow American, Dan Coleman, gets a little too close to Rosalie much to the ire of her husband who clearly had his senses of both perspective and of irony surgically removed at birth. How dare this man step onto his territory? And then even that affront gets sidelined when mild-mannered Faisal is sucked into direct action against the infidel, accidentally drawing Rosalie into the plot.

      ~Saudi Horror Stories~

      I am fascinated and horrified by the way women are treated in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and irresistibly drawn to books set in that country. No matter how many I read there are always new abuses to turn my stomach and make me wonder how it can be that we just sit back and let this continue. Of course I know the answer - these guys have oil and 'the West' will let them do whatever they like and to hell with anything that might smack of human rights. I was aware of the law that men can take additional wives (even 'temporary wives' if they want to use prostitutes) and that children are the property of their fathers but 'The Ruins of Us' brings a higher level of reality to those laws, taking them out of the theoretical and into the realms of watching a 'friend' tackle them directly. The Ruins of Us is set in the Saudi Arabia of the wealthy, the people living a privileged life, able to escape the country when they're desperate for booze and fun or to take their holidays in the world's most exclusive resorts. It's clearly a very different life than that of the average Saudi in the street and a world apart from the lives of poor immigrant workers but that doesn't make it any the less interesting. What the book shows us is that all that wealth in the world isn't worth a hoot if your husband has gone off with another woman and you've no authority to take the kids with you if you leave. Heck, you can't even get the ticket to fly out of the country without his signature to say you are 'allowed' to leave.

      ~Write what you know~

      Keija Parssinen was born in Saudi Arabia in 1980, the third generation of her family in the country. Her grandfather and grandmother had moved to the country in the 1950s, brought up their children and grandchildren . Keija was 12 when she left the country and like the protagonist of 'The Ruins of Us' she knew and loved the country of her childhood. Like Rosalie, she moved to Texas but unlike Rosalie, her website shows she's a blonde, not a redhead and she's married to an American, not a heart-breakingly fickle Saudi.

      'The Ruins of Us' offers a glimpse at both the expat life via Dan Coleman, and the privileged life of the rich natives, via Abdullah. Rosalie has the unusual position of being neither native nor expat. It also offers insights into life in the Kingdom in the post 9/11 era, a time when kidnappings, killings and the rise of radical Islam have an impact on everyone living there. We see Dan the expat pushed around by his wealthy colleague, despised by his colleague's son, lonely and lacking the money he'd need to head home and set up again after his divorce. We see Rosalie torn between her ideas of how an American and how a Saudi should act and worrying over the damage her marriage breakdown is causing to her children. The storyline takes a turn for the bizarre in the second half when events out in the dessert dip into the slightly less believable, but the ending when it comes is somehow both unexpected and, when you stop to think about it, oddly predictable.

      ~Recommendation? - Don't marry a Saudi, that's my recommendation~

      This is an easy read, a mid-life crisis with quite a lot of differences, but at heart a story about a marriage in meltdown and the way it impacts on all of the family. It's not a book of great literary merit, it won't win any awards, but if you have an interest in the perverted and corrupt ways of Saudi society and don't mind being sickened by state-sponsored abuse of anyone who lacks a Y-chromosome, then this might be the book for you.

      ~Details~

      The Ruins of Us
      Kija Parssinen
      Faber and Faber
      324pp
      ISBN 978-0-571-28218-0

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