Based on her experience living with Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, American Zoe Ferraris tries to give us an inside look at one aspect of the complicated contemporary Muslim society in Saudi Arabia. There were too many qualifications in that last sentence. That's because Saudi Arabia, on the face of it, is one of the Middle East countries cordial to the United States and it's one of the most "western" in its appearance. Lest we forget, however, it is predominantly conservative Muslim. The vast majority of Saudi Arabian women appear in public in burkas, the head to toe shroud that masks their identity and femininity. It is difficult for a woman to hold power or affect the political structure, but there are exceptions. This is the complicated, conflicting structure that provides the background Ferraris uses for her tale of murder and propriety.
On the verge of marrying a suitable man chosen by her wealthy family, young Nouf disappears and is later found in the desert, drowned. One of the distraught members of her large, influential family asks Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide who has worked for the family on several occasions, to first find her in the desert and then to find the murderer once her body is found. Nayir is a conservative Muslim who yearns to be married but finds it difficult to find a wife because he is a low-status (no one to broker his marriage) pious (can't look at women) Muslim. This seems like a fairly interesting conflict, but within the course of the book Nayir slips from a conservative point of view to a more liberal one without a satisfying point of liberation, in my opinion.
Katya is the fiancée of one of the family's sons. She is a modern woman because she has a job and is willing to be seen in certain settings without her veil. She risks being socially ostracized and losing her job to help find the killer. Her point of view is much more interesting. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her rather than Nayir, but the point of Ferraris' story is that Katya was very limited in what she could do.
The book was slow moving in parts, but it was mostly intriguing. It's good that I'm still thinking about the book, but it's probably not good that I found the resolution a little trite. I thought there could have been more depth and a grander motivation. I wanted it to be more about the Saudi Arabian culture and less about self-serving egotism, something we can get in the United States in abundance.