Unlike the amazing readers who commit to (and follow through on!) reading a book a week, I have taken on a more modest goal for myself -- read and at least briefly review all ten of the 2009 Alex Award winners by Summer Reading checkout time at the end of May. I've already read The Good Thief, and have just finished Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris. Eight more to go.
Finding Nouf is at heart a mystery set in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, with four main characters: Nayir, an honorable bachelor and skilled desert guide; Katya, who as an educated, single working woman, engaged to a man of her own choosing, is breaking many of society's rules; and Nouf, daughter of a very wealthy family, found dead at 16 after a mysterious disappearance. The fourth character is Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic gender laws, enforced both by official religious police and vigilante watchdogs.
There's nothing startlingly different about this novel's storyline -- pregnant teen runs away, family secrets and cover up, accident or murder? What's really fascinating and different is that Fourth Character, shown through the development of the male and female lead and supporting characters. Katya, who at first seems to be cast as female support to Nayir, pursues the investigation as a personal search for truth, even though she risks her job, her upcoming marriage and possibly her life to do so. This is a 28-year-old woman with a keen mind and a PhD in biology, restricted to working only in a segregated female-only environment, not allowed to drive, who can't run even routine errands without a male escort/chaperone. So much potential to contribute to the entire society, restricted and rejected by religious limitations on her gender.
Nayir is a gentle, thoughtful, deeply traditional man, and something of an outsider (Palestinian, orphaned, raised by an eccentric sort of uncle). He is respectful of women and wistfully wishes for a wife, but has no family to make marriage arrangements for him and is reluctant to pursue marriage otherwise. Working with Katya makes him uncomfortable, intrigues him, and unsettles his assumptions about appropriate behavior, expectations and futures, both for women and for himself.
If you like literary mysteries (√), strong female characters (including teens) (√), and novels with a window into an unknown culture (√), Finding Nouf will deliver the goods.