Zoe Ferraris brings us another fascinating murder mystery that takes place in Saudi Arabia, her second in what could well become a series of novels showcasing the detective skills—and burgeoning romance–of forensic scientist Katya and desert guide Nayir. As with her first novel Finding Nouf, Ferraris opens City of Veils with the discovery of the seriously mutilated corpse of a young woman. Because Katya works for the police, she manages to get access to autopsy reports, criminal evidence and the ongoing murder investigation itself, and as an enlightened Saudi woman who daily battles sexual discrimination on her job and on the street, she once again feels compelled to step forward and give an identity, a voice, and hopefully justice to the victim.
As in her first novel, Ferraris peoples City of Veils with an array of characters representing the cultural spectrum that is Saudi Arabia. She has conservative traditionalists, both men and women, who embrace the suffocatingly rigid guidelines that they feel define them as Muslim, and on the other side, self-liberated Muslim men and women who risk censure, ostracism, jail and even execution to express themselves as individuals, first and foremost. While Ferraris is careful not to portray all the traditionalists as the bad guys, and not all the “enlightened” Muslims as the good guys, she leaves no doubt where her sympathies lie and sometimes her characters on the ends of the spectrum come off as too stereotyped. As a result, I found that the subtle pull and tug between the more enlightened Katya and the just-awakening Nayir is where Ferraris wages her battle most effectively.
What I found especially provocative about this second novel is that Ferraris imbeds in her plot a discussion of the dangers of literalist, or fundamentalist worship, that while addressed to Muslim fundamentalism, I found equally applicable to all the religions. As one of her characters puts it, “The idea that there’s only one way to read (the Koran, the Bible, the Torah), reduces the whole book to something flat. It’s not dynamic anymore. It can’t keep up with the changes in humanity. It just becomes an ornament.” That argument, which horrifies Nayir who was taught that the Koran is “pure,” the word of Allah, unchanged and unchangeable, resonates in Nayir’s mind—and the reader’s—through much of the book.