Sixteen-year-old Nouf, first daughter of a prestigious Saudi family, disappears just days before her arranged marriage. She’s found dead in the desert outside Jeddah a week and a half later. While the premise of Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf is pretty standard — a young woman goes missing under murky circumstances — what’s remarkable about this debut is that its mystery takes place within a culture that has itself largely been under wraps.
Nouf’s brother Othman enlists two people to handle the case: his fiancée, Katya, who works in the coroner’s office. and his close friend Nayir, a devout Muslim and desert guide. The duo form an uneasy alliance. Nayir, Palestinian by birth, has little to no experience with women; Katya, though educated and working, is still segregated behind walls and hidden behind burqas.
Ferraris is an American who has lived in Saudi Arabia. She conveys, without pedantry or judgment, both male and female perspectives on the deeply Muslim country, where religious police crack down on mixed company, the sight of an ”unclean” woman can send a man back home to ritually cleanse himself, and gas costs 52 cents a gallon. The thriller plot is well paced. But it’s the individual journeys of Nayir and Katya, who abide by their society’s strictures even as they are frustrated by them, that elevate Finding Nouf to a larger human drama. B+