Zoë Ferraris, who lived in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, sets her debut novel amid the sand and oil of Saudi Arabia, offering a glimpse of modern Saudi life.
The Story: Nouf ash-Shrawi, a 16-year-old Saudi girl from a wealthy family, vanishes for three days just before she is to wed—and is found, dead, in the desert. Equally shocking is the discovery that Nouf was pregnant when she died. Searching for answers, her family asks Palestinian Nayir al-Sharqi, a family friend, to look into the matter discreetly. Because of Nayir’s Palestinian ethnicity and Saudi Arabia’s endemic gender segregation, he makes little progress. Things change when he meets Katya Hijazi, a female (with a PhD) employed in the women’s division of the state medical examiner’s office—and she suspects murder.
Houghton Mifflin. 320 pages. $24. ISBN 0618873880
Christian Science Monitor
" [Ferraris] details everything from the Byzantine politics governing upper-class women’s sitting rooms to a study of desert footprints that would delight Sherlock Holmes. … Far-flung mysteries have been the thing for a few years, but Finding Nouf is both particularly well-crafted and readily accessible for American readers." Yvonne Zip
Los Angeles Times
"Ferraris does not skimp on the structural elements necessary for a good mystery, imbuing the story with escalating suspense that all but masks a telegraphed revelation of the murderer’s identity. But Finding Nouf is more concerned with exposing a simmering world of heightened emotion held in check by the culture’s restrictive and iron-clad rule." Sarah Weinman
"Finding Nouf has a solid plot that keeps the pages turning, yet the novel has deeper levels that are equally compelling. … Every page conveys rich details, from what it’s like to wear a burqa to how to avoid the ‘evil eye,’ to what to do when it’s so hot your sandals melt into the sidewalk. It’s a fascinating world, and Ferraris tells all." Susan Wickstom
"But though the structure of Finding Nouf flirts with the clichés of a murder mystery, the novel fills a niche: Glimpses of life inside Saudi Arabia are rare, and the novel is an intriguing portrait of a patriarchy that bars women from driving and only recently allowed them to rent apartments on their own. … It’s somewhat unfortunate that those observations … taper off in the final chapters of Finding Nouf, as Ferraris gets down to the necessary business of addressing DNA tests, alibis and motives to reveal the truth of Nouf’s fate." Mark Athitakis
Since she builds her mystery on the shifting Saudi sands, critics agree that Ferraris has struck oil (and who couldn’t use a little more oil at this point?). Though the actual murder and its resolution probably won’t redefine the mystery genre, the book’s setting, many reviewers claim, goes a long way toward doing so. Ferraris shines at depicting Saudi life, and while she rarely fails to criticize its absurdities, she also reveals its humanity: men and women use potholders to open car doors (to avoid being burned by the hot metal), and the markets are full of charming salesmen dedicated to selling fireplaces and fur coats (in the middle of the desert). It remains to be seen, though, whether Ferraris will continue to spin the narrow golden thread begun in Finding Nouf, arching delicately between two genres, and succeeding at both.