Browsing in the library, I was intrigued to find a book about an African immigrant in Saudi Arabia, written by an author who went through that experience himself. No doubt this is what caught the publishers’ attention as well. I don’t really blame them--exotic locales and unique experiences sell (I’m as responsible for that trend in publishing as anyone else), and so I suppose they’d be thrilled to take something like this as long as it’s minimally competent, with proper grammar and scene construction and so on. It does have that, but otherwise isn’t a novel I’d recommend.
The first-person narrator, Naser, came to Saudi Arabia as an Eritrean refugee at age 10. When the book starts, ten years later, he's alienated from his family, but has built a sort of life for himself--he has his own apartment, a job at a car wash, and friends with whom he sniffs glue and drinks perfume (um, okay) at night. But due to the strict separation between genders, he hasn't spoken to a woman in ten years, and falls head over heels the moment a veiled girl starts dropping love notes at his feet.
The relationship between Naser and the girl is at the heart of the book, and disappointed me. She's "in love" with him because of his looks; he's "in love" with her because she's available. Which could have been promising--not every fictional relationship need be a beautiful love story--except that it's never acknowledged that this relationship is founded on lust and loneliness and that the chances these two are actually compatible are slight. I'm willing to read a book about a pair of horny, repressed, desperate kids, but I want to see the actual consequences (pardon the pun) of that relationship, rather than just being told over and over that this is some earth-shaking romance.
And does this book ever tell, rather than show! I was willing to overlook some awkward exposition--"my fifty-year-old Chadian boss let me have some time off"--given that it's a first novel, but the larger problem is the constant, heavy-handed effort to manipulate readers' emotions. If you're already invested in Naser's plight, you don't need passages like (paraphrasing) "What would happen next? What would happen to me? What would happen to Fiore? Would we ever see each other again?" whenever he's in danger. And if you're not, this melodramatic filler won't do the trick. The repetitive, flatly-written, and yet overwrought detailing of emotions is equally off-putting:
"I feared going back to my lonely room. I didn't want to leave her. I wanted to be with her forever. I didn't want to let go of her pink painted nails, her parted lips. I loved looking at her eyes; the fact that one was slightly smaller than the other gave the impression than she was eternally searching for something, for her life. As I caressed her delicate lips with my finger and gazed at her wild hair, I was happy that she was my woman and I was her man. We belonged to each other, I thought. We deserved to grow old together because we had made the impossible possible. I hoped fate would be kind to us."
The characters don't get much development either. Naser starts off very sympathetic if not particularly vivid, but later veers between seeming overly sensitive and responding to obstacles with clumsy attempts to blackmail whomever gets in his way. The girl, who never gets a name--Naser dubs her "Fiore"--has little personality, to match. Everyone else is minor and one-note.
The constraints of the setting also seem to be adjusted arbitrarily as the plot requires. As an immigrant, Naser's life is precarious, and yet he has sufficient savings to quit his job and chase "Fiore" full-time for months. She can walk the streets alone to find Naser and drop him notes, but says it's too dangerous for her to bend over and pick up his. Then later, they meet in public places and go off together. And then he starts regularly visiting her house disguised as a woman. But wait: if it's inappropriate for her father, the man of the house, to see or speak to a "female" guest, then why are love affairs so difficult?--any man whose body type might pass for a woman's when shrouded from head to toe could come and go without notice. And why is Fiore's mother complicit? Few parents even in the U.S., with a completely different view of relationships, are so happy to facilitate their teenage children's having sex. Let alone with a virtual stranger and in a society where women are expected to be virginal at marriage.
The setting, though, is what saves this book from total disaster. It provides a vivid view of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, a country as restrictive as many a dystopia. The author clearly hates that country, and I'd like to read another book by a Saudi author for an insider's view, but it's a fascinating setting nonetheless.
This is a quick, easy read, with a fairly interesting plot, and who knows, if you consider yourself a romantic, you may like it better than I did. However, I would not recommend it.