”Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to lead quiet lives circumscribed by Islamic law and tradition. But Katya, one of the few women in the medical examiner’s office, is determined to make her work mean something.
When the body of a brutally beaten woman is found on the beach in Jeddah, the city’s detectives are ready to dismiss the case as another unsolvable murder-chillingly common in a city where the veils of conservative Islam keep women as anonymous in life as the victim is in death. If this is another housemaid killed by her employer, finding the culprit will be all but impossible.
Only Katya is convinced that the victim can be identified and her killer found. She calls upon her friend Nayir for help, and soon discovers that the dead girl was a young filmmaker named Leila, whose controversial documentaries earned her many enemies.
With only the woman’s clandestine footage as a guide, Katya and Nayir must confront the dark side of Jeddah that Leila struggled to expose: an underworld of prostitution, violence, exploitation, and jealously guarded secrets. Along the way, they form an unlikely alliance with an American woman whose husband has disappeared. Their growing search takes them from the city’s car-clogged streets to the deadly vastness of the desert beyond.”
Thoughts: Zoe Ferraris’ City of Veils is a typical murder mystery with a twist. The twist, in this case, is not sudden or shocking but rather a fundamental element of the story, as the twist is mentioned in the synopsis – empowered women in a traditional Islamic society. Reading about Katya’s and Leila’s trials as a women under Islamic law and tradition is just as interesting, if not more so, than the mystery itself.
City of Veils is the second book in a series, something that may not be apparent at first glance as there is very little that would provide a clue to a reader. While the story itself is a stand-alone story, there are enough references to the previous story for a reader to understand that one is missing some character development from that first novel. It is not enough to completely detract from one’s enjoyment of the current novel, but it is enough to raise a few questions as to what one might have missed.
In a world where ongoing conflicts between Islamic and western countries continue to make headline news, one cannot help but feel that City of Veils adds fuel to an already very hot fire. Ms. Ferraris’ personal opinion of Muslim laws is uncomfortably obvious, and her negative attitude permeates the entire novel. Much is made of the restrictions – physical and emotional – of burqas, niqabs, and hijabs, as well as the subtle humiliations from other gender laws. All it does is create a vision of a country/region which is unfriendly towards Western women and downright archaic towards its own female inhabitants.
Without the cultural differences and clarifications that occur throughout the novel, the mystery in City of Veils is rather bland. The list of suspects is obvious, given Western understanding of male and female roles under Islamic law, whereas the perpetrator does nothing but confirm that understanding. The subplot of the novel is revolutionary in its ideas, but the main character of the subplot feels more like a stand-in for Ms. Ferraris as this character does little more than appear to espouse her beliefs.
The lone bright spot, indeed the lone item of apparent authenticity, is the internal confusion within each of the characters as they struggle to adapt to a society in flux. Western influence in traditionally Islamic regions has to be great, exciting some citizens and horrifying others. The cast of characters within City of Veils cross the entire spectrum of belief and adherence to tradition. It is this dichotomy which truly gives the story life and believability.
Behind its intriguing premise, City of Veils fails to do little more than confirm long-standing opinions that divide the Western world from Islamic countries. The murder mystery takes a backseat to the ongoing clash between two very different ideologies. Even though there are elements of brilliance in showing the variety of opinions and faithfulness to traditional laws, the entire novel is too just too negative overall. One wishes that such a novel, with characters who are obviously trying to find the right balance of tradition and evolution for themselves, would not have fallen prey to portraying Islamic countries so adversely.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Hachette Books for my review copy!