My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is a change in style and purpose in this third iteration of Zoë Ferraris’s take on criminal investigation in the shifting cultural sands of Saudi Arabia. Kingdom of Strangers is the most straightforward crime novel of the three and regrettably, the least stirring.
Although this thriller can be read independently of Ferraris’s << Nayir al-Sharqi #1 and #2, aka Finding Nouf and City of Veils >>, a familiar cast of characters creates the scenes. Here again is forensic technician Katya Hijazi, an ambitious young woman stifled by her culture. She is oppressed at work by male colleagues who can barely tolerate the shadowy presence of women in distant offices, much less consider them for advancement. She is engaged to the loving but pious desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi, who plays a secondary role in this novel. Katya is conflicted about her upcoming nuptials, as she fears marriage to a devout Muslim will mean the end to a career she loves. Her own connection to Islam is forced and arbitrary as she struggles against Saudi subjugation of women. We also catch glimpses of Osama Zahrani, but it is his brother and fellow police investigator, Ibrahim, who takes the helm in Kingdom of Strangers.
The brutal and symbolic handiwork of a serial killer is uncovered in the desert outside of Jeddah. The bodies of nineteen women, whose corpses span a decade, shake a police force which assumes serial killers are a phenomenon of the corrupt West.
As the investigation unfolds, Detective Ibrahim Zahrani becomes mired in a personal dilemma. His mistress, Sabria, has vanished. He must keep his search a secret as the crime of adultery is punishable by death. He trusts one colleague only – Katya Hijazi. Katya risks her career and impending marriage by helping this superior who holds her in high professional regard.
Ferraris has become a true master of the literary thriller; she devotes more energy to the details of the crimes and to the criminal investigation than in her two previous novels.The scenes set in Jeddah’s Homicide unit and in the field are fascinating. We witness the machinations of the ambitious, the corrupt, the earnest and the fanatical, within the context an authoritarian culture dominated by religious strictures. The crimes and the investigation run with all the real-time urgency of the best television crime shows.
It is no surprise that the oppression of women in Saudi culture again dominates Ferraris’s thriller. In Kingdom of Strangers the net of control is tossed wider as we learn of the brutal treatment of migrant workers – foreigners brought in from Africa, Southeast Asia and India as menial laborers. Many of these workers are in fact victims of human trafficking. The most vulnerable – the women – become slaves in the households of Saudi’s wealthiest. Those who escape have no means, finanacial or diplomatic, to leave the country, so they form cities of slums underneath freeway underpasses, becoming Jeddah’s “Kingdom of Strangers.”
But in all honesty, this theme is getting to be a drag for this reader. Because the circumstances of their daily lives have not changed, there is little development in the characters of Katya and Nayir. The claustrophobic mores of Saudi Arabia are so intractable that they dominate every scene. The plot is weighed down by the impossibility of the stifling culture and rather than shocking, the oppression becomes monotonous.
I rate this highly because it is an excellent read, but I hope the Ferraris’s literary world takes us out of Saudi Arabia. I remarked in my review of City of Veils that I feared the author would paint herself into a corner by pursuing the same themes and settings in each story. As sublime a writer as she is, the paintbrush is dripping.