I\’m not sure my review will do this book justice â€“ because quite simply it was amazing. At first glance a thriller â€“ with a murder and a mysterious disappearance the main features. But just like the city in which this book is set, nothing is as it seems and there is more to this book, and this city, than meets the eye.
City of Veils is the second novel by ZoÃ« Ferraris, and although it is a follow on novel, you do not need to have read the first book to understand the couple of characters that are featured again. (But, don\’t worry, I will be going back to read it!) The book opens with the discovery of a woman\’s body on the beach in Jeddah. Tortured and left half-naked beneath her burqa, it appears the woman is an abused housemaid left to die alone (an all too common scenario apparently).
Katya is a fledgling lab worker in forensic sciences at the police station. With few women employed in the field, she is determined to prove herself worthy of her position. She discovers the dead woman is actually a film-maker from a wealthy family and had been missing for several days. Leila Nawar, against the wishes of her devout brother, set out to show the true face of Jeddah â€“ the lives of women behind the veils and the secrecy, but appears to have angered someone along the way.
The police set out determined to find her killer, with Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim the man leading the way. A fair and intelligent man, he is not overly devout and values the role of women in his work. He gratefully accepts the help of Katya and her friend, Nayir. Nayir is a Bedouin desert guide – a pious man he takes his religion seriously and although he has feelings for Katya he struggles to align these with his doubts about her desire to be independent and apparent inability to be a â€˜good Muslim woman\’.
A side story to this murder investigation is the mysterious disappearance of American expat Eric Walker. Working in Jeddah as a security guard, he collects his wife Miriam from the airport and then disappears. She is bereft â€“ an American woman living in a country where just going out onto the street alone is an experience fraught with danger. As these characters cross paths and the two mysteries appear to have some connection you are irrevocably drawn into their lives, and their lives are far from dull.
Although the mystery in this book is engrossing with tightly woven stories it is the vivid descriptions of life in Jeddah that really made this book for me. It is a cunningly crafted thriller that is literally bursting with knowledge â€“ I learnt so much. With only limited knowledge of life in Saudi Arabia, and of Muslim culture in general, this book was fascinating. Jeddah is described as a relatively liberal city, with less emphasis placed on religious piety. But still, the differences between the women\’s and men\’s lives are phenomenal. Women largely stay at home to care for the house and children, they are not allowed on the street without headscarves and burqas (mind you the burqa\’s come with built in Bluetooth devices!), have separate sitting rooms within their own homes and are allowed to work in government decreed jobs only. And the extremes of piousness are just that â€“ extreme. Some of the men in the story feel impure for simply glancing at a woman\’s uncovered face, yet others are comfortable working side by side as equals. It is a truly fascinating look at a culture and belief system that many of us condemn, and yet really know nothing about in terms of the real intricacies of day to day life.
So, overall I have to say I was sorry to see this book end, sorry that my journey to this world had ended. And in terms of feeling like you had really experienced what the characters had â€“ wait til you read the desert scenes, they left me feeling panicky and anxious as I contemplated going through what Miriam and Nayir did. Anyway, enough said, you\’ll have to go read it!
Available now: Hachette RRP$32.99