City of Veils
by Zoë Ferraris
Little, Brown and Company | August 2010 | 389 pages | $24.99
Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve
“There was no ringing in his ears, but the brutality of the scene made his skin prickle.” In her second novel, City of Veils, the sequel to her first, Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris introduces Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim against this backdrop of a female’s mutilated, murdered, beached body. Ibrahim stands on the shore alongside the coroner. Both wonder how this woman’s body washed up and how she died.
Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Ferraris invites the audience to step into this world of Ibrahim’s and journey with him on a quest to find the murdered woman’s identity and killer. Up front, Ibrahim seems hopeless. “Osama began to feel the dread of having to deal with Missing Persons. The reports were almost all of women—housemaids…” He doesn’t believe their team stands a chance in solving this case, especially in a sea of second-class, covered faces.
But then a lab technician, Katya, a woman in the coroner’s office, enters the picture. Because of her tenacity and perseverance, along with the help of her friend Nayir, Katya discovers the murdered woman’s identity, Leila Nawar. And Leila Nawar isn’t a housemaid at all, like Ibrahim suspected. Katya discovers Leila is a filmmaker and not just any filmmaker; Leila has filmed controversial things like “abused housemaids, sex slaves, and men who married twenty wives,” among other things. And it looks like Leila made a lot of enemies throughout her career.
It’s a perfect incentive for a murder, but an investigative team’s nightmare.
Ibrahim, Katya and Nayir aren’t the only ones involved in the aftermath of Leila Nawar’s death. Early on in the novel, Ferraris also weaves in a second narrative involving an American couple, the Walkers. Sitting on a plane, Miriam Walker seems less than thrilled to be flying from New York back to Jeddah, where she and her husband, Eric Walker, have made a home. And while on the plane, Miriam encounters Apollo Mabus, an erudite academic who, from his debut, seems villainous. With a cast and a plot like this, Ferraris ignites fervor in her audience, a fervor that keeps them turning pages to find out who killed Leila.
But the charm of City of Veils isn’t just that it’s a whodunit-story. Ferraris offers her audience a literary experience. With texture and fullness, she illustrates the desert with its ridiculous temperatures and jaw-dropping sandstorms. She shows the people and their devotion to religion with strict prayer times and recitations. She illustrates the culture of Jeddah including the aromas of food and familial structures, and all of these contribute to the depth of this piece of literature. But the thing Ferraris hones in on and exploits best is the treatment of women in this culture.
Rather than slapping her audience with an agenda, or opinion, she presents the treatment of women in Jeddah as an undertone. She shows how religious texts, dogmatic expressions, and tradition have permeated the culture, causing a radical and atrocious handling and she shows how none of the characters can escape the certainty of it. The best summary of this comes on Miriam’s plane ride back to Jeddah. She already feels anxious about returning to this altogether different world than she’s accustomed to, and then Apollo, the gentleman sitting next to her on the plane, turns to Miriam and says, “They hate women…They fear them and they hate them, and do you know why? Because women are smarter, more biologically gifted, and have always had power over man.” Apollo’s assessment of women rumbles through the entire book, like a tremor after an earthquake and Ferraris reveals how none of the characters can escape it. Each one must face the reality and make a choice about how he/she will relate to and treat women.
With a plot this thick, one wouldn’t want to be lost, and Ferraris made sure her audience wouldn’t be. Even though City of Veils is the sequel to Finding Nouf, Ferraris authors City of Veils in a way that eliminates any need of reading the first novel. When she references something from the earlier text, Ferraris fully explains any requisite back-story. I never felt confused or felt as if I should have read the first novel to understand this one. I only had to turn the page to read what happens next.
Ferraris has geared this novel toward a broad audience. The characters range in age from adolescence to mid-sixties. They also range in ethnicity and in occupation. As a twenty-seven year-old American, I related and resonated with all the characters because Ferraris sculpted each one with care. I loved some of them and hated others, but I could empathize with all of them. I felt sad as the book ended. I didn’t want to leave them, as Ferraris makes her characters so palpable and believable.
Along with crafting the characters with precision and control, Ferraris also provides a well-developed, complex plot. I found myself engrossed with the storyline, and thinking about the book, even while not reading it. She does an exemplary job of leading her audience through a terrain of mystery. Because of her skill and artistry, she invents a seamless plot that drew me in, causing me to second-guess my assessments over and over again. And in a mystery novel, that can be tricky to do. I highly recommend this book to everyone. You won’t be disappointed.