To outsiders, Saudi Arabia is a closed society. It follows a literal interpretation of Islam, executes convicted criminals in public and hides women beneath suffocating black robes. The coastal city of Jeddah, where City of Veils is set, is more "liberal" than most, but that doesn't stop two characters witnessing a public flogging on their way home. It takes place on a roundabout on a main road, and they hear the young man screaming for mercy as the bamboo whip turns his back into a bloody mess.
Inside the car are Nayir Sharqi, a Bedouin guide helping the police with a murder inquiry, and a forensic scientist called Katya Hijazi. They met in Zoë Ferraris's brilliant first novel, The Night of the Mi'raj, and have a troubled relationship. Katya was engaged at the time, although no longer, and Nayir is scared by the strength of his feelings for her. Being in a car with an unrelated female, even a work colleague, is agonising for him: "This was the worst kind of weakness because there was nothing he could do about it... short of kicking her out of the car."
Katya and Nayir are investigating the murder of a young Saudi woman from a wealthy family, whose body has washed up on a beach with dreadful injuries. Leila Nawar was a film-maker who lived at home with her devout brother, the owner of an upmarket lingerie shop, and concealed from him that she was making a subversive film about the origins of the Qur'an. Leila's murder seems linked with the disappearance of an American, Eric Walker, who walked out of his flat late one night and never returned. Walker's wife, Miriam, is one of the novel's most sympathetic characters, meeting one obstacle after another – women are not supposed to go out alone – as she tries to find out what has happened to her husband.
At one level, this is a fascinating crime novel with an astonishing denouement during a sandstorm in the desert. Ferraris is American, but moved to Saudi Arabia to live with her then-husband and his extended family, a group of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, and she uses her experience to bring alive the country's culture and contradictions. But City of Veils does more than that, providing unique insights into the minds of men brought up to fear women and the desire they inspire. Claustrophobic and totally original, this is modern crime fiction at its very best.
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