Robin Yassin-Kassab

Kingdom of Strangers

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This review was first published at the Guardian.

“Surely” – a desperate character muses on his way to court – “there were a thousand other men like him who’d made mistakes enough to ruin their lives, their careers and their families, and yet surely those men had carried on, as had their families. There was room for everything in this vast, disordered place.”

The place is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, depicted by celebrated crime writer Zoe Ferraris with sympathy and realism, and in all its complexity: through its text messages and mobiles, SUVs and shopping malls, its exorcist surgeries and women-only banks, plus the “forced meditation” of compulsory prayer. And the harsh worlds inhabited by immigrant workers. Migrant workers, female and male, constitute perhaps a third of the Saudi population, and they give this novel – Kingdom of Strangers – its title.

To start with, nineteen bodies are found in the desert. The carefully mutilated victims are immigrant women, Asians, and their corpes are arranged to convey a hidden message.

Enter Chief Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani, whose repertoire includes policeman’s intuition and Beduin trackers as well as forensic analysts and an American expert on serial killers.

Ibrahim is a liberal in his context, a rationalist, but he’s not squeamish, in his moments of pain, about applying violence to the deserving. His quiet suffering and basic decency would make him a figure of genuine tragedy if the plot didn’t rather unconvincingly spirit him out of danger at the close.

In Ibrahim’s book, “fierce, dignified personal power” is “the most highly regarded quality in a woman.” His wife Jamilah has other ideas, and spends her time busily arranging unsuitable marriages for their children. One such deal has paired her son with Saffaneh, whose “version of religion” ruffles Ibrahim’s feathers. But Saffaneh’s puritanism  is a screen to hide a secret.

Ibrahim too is hiding something: his lover Sabria, an Asian immigrant, once an abused housemaid, and another bearer of secrets, has gone missing. For such obvious reasons as the draconian Saudi adultery law, Ibrahim can’t talk about it.

Except to Katya Hijazi, the novel’s credible Saudi heroine. She works in forensics but aspires to the man’s world of the homicide department. Her status as working woman may be suspect, she may not be permitted to drive herself around, but Katya does much of the legwork and most of the puzzle-solving in both cases. She enacts the detective’s readerly habit of making connections, penetrating the mind of the psychopath, reading his patterns. She is assisted by dreams, and by her detective’s gaze which is so like the writer’s, able to tease out histories from clues, to illuminate a life from its furniture.

She follows leads through bourgeois Saudi sitting rooms and into impoverished shanty towns inhabited by people who’ve overstayed their Haj visas, maids fled from slavery and rape, those who don’t have their employer’s permission to leave.

The narrative jumps smoothly between Ibrahim and Katya’s perspectives, and drifts into other minds too. Nayir, Katya’s fiancee who inevitably becomes her chaperone and driver, is a well drawn conservative-liberal, a contestation of tradition and modernity. A very ordinary Saudi, in other words. Katya and Nayir own the book’s final scene, and their end is both more convincing and more provocative of questions than Ibrahim’s.

Ferrarris’s acute psychological observations bring her characters to life, and she has an unerring sense of place and (better still) of time. Her Jeddah is concrete, not exotic, real enough to feel like a shimmering moment. The everpresent process of social change is communicated by subtle detail and the thoughts that shift in the characters’ heads. Ferraris is able to achieve this first because she’s a highly skilled writer, second because she knows her setting so well.

Replete with bad cops, false leads, twists and sudden turns, this is superlative crime fiction mixed with unforced cultural analysis. It bursts right out of genre constrictions and will appeal to anyone  who likes a good, intelligent read.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 31, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Posted in book review, Saudi Arabia

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