On my bookshelf these holidays – a mystery set in Saudi Arabia

Syndetics book coverCity of veils / Zoe Ferraris.
Holidays are a great opportunity for reading. In my Christmas/New Year reading there were quite a few mysteries – a favourite genre of mine – but I was particularly captured by this recently-published title.
Katya Hijazi is a rarity in Saudi Arabia, a professional single woman, working as a forensic technician in the medical examiner’s office in the port city of Jeddah. When the body of a young, mutilated, semi-naked woman is brought in for an autopsy, Katya is drawn into investigating her death. Coincidentally, she meets up again with Nayir Sharqi, a Bedouin guide, whom she first worked with and got to know while investigating an ealier case. Nayir is now investigating the disappearance of an American contract worker, and as they help each other out in their separate investigations, it becomes apparent that his and Katya’s cases are linked.  Along with their crime-solving , Katya and Nayir are at the same time carefully navigating their way through an awkward, budding romantic relationship – difficult in a country where men and women are separated by so many religious and cultural  practices.

What’s compelling about this book is not just the depth and complexity of the characters, but the physical and cultural setting of the novel. The descriptions of the landscape – the intensity of the light, the suffocating summer heat and the threatening beauty of the desert – are palpable. The  characters are beautifully drawn, and Katya and Nayir in particular are engaging.  But this novel disturbs in places – the constant undercurrent of fevered sexuality in a repressed society, the description of the everyday happening of a public whipping, the claustrophobia and the powerlessness of the women’s lives, even those who are lucky enough to have progressive fathers and husbands.

If you enjoy this novel, look out also the first title in the series, “The night of the Mi’raj”, which is equally compelling.