Rating: 4 stars
I don’t think I once fully understood what was going on in The Dove’s Necklace, but I can’t say I didn’t have fair warning. The opening sentence of the first part of the book begins:
The only thing you can know for certain in this entire book is where the body was found …
The body, that of a naked woman, is discovered in an alley known as the Lane of Many Heads. It’s the alley itself that narrates the story, introducing the main characters and commenting on their lives.
Nobody wants to claim the woman, because of her nakedness, because of the shame it would bring to whichever family she came from. Detective Nasser is determined to find out who she is, though, because he is haunted by the killing of his sister by their father, because his father killed his sister out of shame.
This is present day Mecca, a place both ancient and modern. A holy city like other holy cities, full of pilgrims, beggars, the exploited and those who exploit. Women exist with the permission of men, are invisible until men notice them, as someone to desire, someone to use, someone to condemn. But women also exist without the permission of men. They have desires and ways of using others to obtain what they want. Sometimes the veil between men and women is useful to them.
The Dove’s Necklace is a confusion of different voices. It marries noir-like narrative delivered by the alley with extracts from the diary of a local writer, Yusuf, who was obsessed with one of the women Detective Nasser believes the body could be, and with emails written to her German boyfriend by the other woman Detective Nasser is considering as the victim. The rhythms of the diary extracts are like poetry. The prose feels open, as though it’s floating, rather than nailed down. It has a dreamlike feel. The emails, too, since they are love letters and outpourings of a woman’s secret heart, are also poetic and open. The narrative delivered by the alley has a touch of magical realism mixed in with the hard boiled noir. Alem’s writing made me think of Auster, both Murakamis, Atwood, Bolaño, Eco, Mankell, Borges, lots of mostly male writers whose work I love. It is writing that has internal contradictions. It’s clipped and concise, but it meanders and doesn’t reveal much that could be called concrete. Landscape is a character, but inert objects have the aspect of characters, too. There is symbolism that I didn’t always follow, and I don’t know if that was because I’m unfamiliar with Islam, or unfamiliar with Saudi society and culture, or whether the symbolism was just plain old obscure. I felt very white and western as I read. One thread that pulled me through the obfuscation of the book was the way in which Detective Nasser as a character was like almost every detective ever written: lonely, sexually frustrated, middle aged, worried about his reputation, carrying around his Madonna/whore complex in his wish to protect women in their weakness while hating them for their lack of need for protection. Detective Nasser was the most familiar thing in the book. He was also mind blowingly incompetent in the way he conducts the investigation.
Added to my poor understanding of Saudi society and culture, my unfamiliarity with Mecca and the way of life in that city made the book a voyage of discovery for me. I imagined Mecca to be a place of winding lanes and pale stone buildings, quite ancient in appearance, from the descriptions given by the Lane of Many Heads. At first, I didn’t get a sense of modernisation. I imagined the scenes around the Sanctuary to be like those seen on travel programmes about any holy site where people go on pilgrimage, crowded, bustling, an oppressive crush of bodies. It felt like a mediaeval place, although the people were modern. It wasn’t until Mu’az, the Imam’s son who has taken up photography, shows Yusuf around the former home of his mentor that I understood how Mecca has changed. The house is full of photographs documenting life in the city and the thousands of people who enter it on hajj. I became lost in the description, contained on just a couple of pages.
Each floor was a different face of the city’s existence. The lower they went, the more alienated Yusuf felt: as they moved into more recent years, Mecca’s immense spirituality receded into the distance. Floor by floor, the old alleys became wider, and their cobblestones, over which water once ran in rivulets to cool and refresh the city, were picked off, until they reached the ground floor where houses had lost their teak-wood windows altogether. Poor squatters had taken over the old abandoned houses with their roof terraces, and the hillsides had been eaten away to make way for asphalt that bit through them.
Alem portrays the commercialisation of the ancient holy city as a destruction of its character and a banishment of its people. She makes it sound as homogenised as many UK cities now are, full of faceless glass and steel buildings and commercial enterprise.
There is tension in the book between the orthodox Islamic way of life and the yearning for freedom of some of the characters. Aisha, the woman whose emails Detective Nasser reads, has an interesting comment on what is modern and what traditional. In one of the emails, she tells her German boyfriend an old story about a girl brought up in chastity, to the extent that she is only permitted contact with things that take the feminine form in Arabic, and it is a pair of scissors, which take the masculine declension, that enables her escape from the basement where she is being kept.
Needless to say, that single masculine instrument was all the girl needed to escape … An escape that we, the women of the Lane of Many Heads in the twentieth century, had failed to achieve. We were raised in similar subterranean worlds, and when the time came for us to be allowed out, our faces had to be effaced with black – an invisibility cloak that makes us a non-existence – so the masculine world would not notice us … The weird thing was that this regime of effacement was a sign of modernity in the Lane of Many Heads, for throughout the neighbourhood’s history, right up until the early twentieth century, women’s faces had remained uncovered for all the world to see …
This made me think about how quickly society assimilates what is shouted about the loudest. I grew up in a town with a large population of Muslim people who came to work there in the 60s and 70s, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. I remember the girls I was at school with and their mothers being self-confident and bold, funny and warm, the same as the rest of us. I remember their traditional clothes being colourful and bright. That’s no more than 40 years ago, and yet within the last 20 years or so, the perception of Muslim women has become one of oppression and black clothes that swathe them in anonymity in public. It made me think about Afghanistan and the change that happened when the Taliban controlled the country. Women went from having the freedom to wear what they wanted, study at university, and go out to work, to being possessions to be hidden away.
I found Aisha compelling. She is angry about and frustrated by the way her community treats women, and the way women comply with that treatment. She is forthright about who she is and what she believes, but she is also slightly disgusted by herself. She is the issue of feminism writ large, sure of her own character and her right to be treated equally but weakened by the pressure of the louder story told by society that bears down on women and tells them that they are the source of shame.
We are drip fed information about Aisha by the Lane of Many Heads that adds context to the content of her emails and allows us to see her through a different prism to the one she offers through her own words.
Similarly, Yusuf’s story is told partly through his diary entries, in which he obsesses over his foster sister Azza, and partly through the main narrative where his present existence as a fugitive from the police and from unknown criminals is interspersed with recollections from his childhood and early adulthood. He’s unreliable as a character. It’s suggested by the Lane of Many Heads that he suffers from madness. He treats fables and mythology as factual history. He relies on gut feeling as primary evidence that something is true. He’s also something of a misogynist, an attitude taken on at an early age while listening to his mother’s peers offer advice to each other in the Sanctuary.
He began to understand that a wronged woman could tear open the doors of heaven and cause angels to rain down. These heads wrapped in black, these women prostrating fervently around him, they confirmed his suspicion that women’s tears were a dangerous thing, and that to women faith was a dough they baked into bread for food, warmth, and control over their husbands. By feeding her man, she gets her claws into him.
Aisha and Azza are both under consideration as the victim because both women disappeared on the day the body was found. In contrast to Aisha, Azza only exists in the memories of those who knew her. She is described as a quiet girl who spends most of her time drawing. She is depicted as manipulative in Yusuf’s diary, perhaps because his love for her is unrequited. She is someone Aisha envies because she is seemingly so detached from life, flitting from moment to moment.
Her father, the shop keeper Sheikh Muzahim, rents the top floor of his building to Yusuf’s mother, Halima. Halima took on responsibility for Azza’s upbringing when her mother died. This is what brings Yusuf and Azza together, and is the basis for Yusuf’s obsession.
Yusuf’s obsession with Azza is shared by an older man, Khalil. In the present of the book, Khalil is a nihilistic, crazed taxi driver who dresses as a Saudi prince and tries to scare the living shit out of his passengers for a laugh. I enjoyed his character very much. He’s the son of a rich man, a former airline pilot down on his luck, a provocateur, a drug user, a man who doesn’t care about consequences. He’s horrible, but there are reasons for his horridness.
There are other characters that the Lane of Many Heads talks about, seemingly as a means of sending Detective Nasser down blind alleys of investigation. The alley claims to want the detective to have a full picture of life along it and a history of how things came to be the way they are in the present of the book, but nothing the alley describes adds any clarity to proceedings. In some ways, it’s the ultimate shaggy dog story.
The second part of the book swings the story around. It consolidates a lot of the mysteries from part one, focusing on Yusuf, Khalid and a woman called Nora who is living in Madrid, the semi-captive of a Sheikh. Nora’s story is about freedom, compromise and belonging. She wishes to be free but recognises that freedom only comes through being complicitly subjugated to the Sheikh. Things have moved on in Mecca. Detective Nasser is still hoping to crack the case, but the nature of the case has changed in ways he can’t see. The case is now about keys and doors and an ancient quest that goes back to Solomon and Bilqis. It’s mystical and it made my head swim with its dreamlike intensity.
Raja Alem is the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. I hadn’t heard of her. My husband bought me the book after hearing her interviewed on the radio. He thought I would find the novel interesting, and he was right.
I found it compelling, but it took me a while to read. Longer than a novel of 474 pages normally would. I had to keep stopping to rest my brain, which wanted to make linear sense of what was going on, at the same time as knowing it didn’t stand a chance of achieving that aim. I also needed time to mull over what I had read, and look up things with which I was unfamiliar. The further in I got, the more I realised that The Dove’s Necklace is a labyrinth of a book, with multiple layers of story winding around that central event but never quite reaching it. At times it felt as though I could see over the wall and glimpse the middle of the story, only for another corner to throw me off direction again. If you only like your novels to have concrete conclusions, it’s probably best avoided. If, like me, you also enjoy novels that are more about the experience of the telling of a story than a clear story arc, and you don’t mind feeling utterly bewildered for most of the trip, then I heartily recommend it.