Zoë Ferraris, author of Finding Nouf, and City Of Veils, returns with a third novel, Kingdom of Strangers, published last week by Back Bay Books. Set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Ferraris lived for about a year as an American wife of a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin man, police officer Ibrahim Zahrani and his team come across 19 mutilated female bodies buried in the desert. A serial killer, apparently, has been operating in Jeddah for more than a decade.
At the start of the investigation, Zahrani's mistress, a former undercover officer named Sabria Gampon, abruptly goes missing. But Zahrani can't speak publicly about Gampon's disappearance for fear of being accused of adultery. In fundamentalist Islamic Saudi Arabia, their affair is illegal and punishable by death.
Because Sabria works in a women's mall (even shopping in Saudi Arabia is segregated), Ibrahim enlists Katya Hijazi, an aspiring officer stuck in the forensics department, to help him search for Sabria where he cannot. Katya also struggles with personal issues; wanting to do more police work, but unable to, due to sexism at work. "Even if they wanted to work, even if their husbands and fathers agreed to let them interact with strange men," writes Ferraris, "even if they had drivers and ID cards and babysitters, Saudi women struggle to find jobs."
Ferraris, who lives now in San Francisco, has long been interested in exploring the plight of women in the deeply gender-divided society of Saudi Arabia.
The story moves between Ibrahim and Katya, but it is Katya who is the more developed, and who ultimately holds the reader's attention, for her grappling with the prosaic obstacles facing any woman, well beyond the cloistered Saudi society. Ferraris writes, of Katya, "Beyond that, how could she explain that the tedious lab work had lost its appeal? That she was struggling to push herself up a notch by getting more directly involved in investigations? That she had even, last week, taken the bold step of applying to the female police academy? What would he say to that?"
Ibrahim, on the other hand, feels very much like a tool to move the story along. His motivations are frustratingly opaque. That's a shame because Ferraris is quite capable of rendering this far-away—and certainly poorly understood—place, one we feel like we really should know, but can't quite figure out.