While the love story between Naser and Fiore is the center of the plot, the book really has more to say about Saudi society and its hypocrasies than about love. Love is forbidden and all marriages are arranged but sodomizing young boys, even unwilling ones, is socially, if not religiously, acceptable. This men's world devoid of all women is one big boy's club with all the nastiness that this implies. Certain books, alcohol, and other things are forbidden by the imams but if a man is of great enough consequence, he can smuggle in whatever he wants and can do whatever he wants without fear of reprisal. But a man of no consequence, especially a foreigner being offered asylum, must guard his every action for fear that he will be summarily executed, even for a crime he did not commit. The scent of fear is palpable throughout this book; fear of the religious police as well as fear of the powerful elite. Betrayal can not only hurt, it can kill and trust is an emotion in which not many can afford to indulge.
Addonia has portrayed a deeply flawed and horrific society in modern day Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of powerful men, heavily punishing women and weak transgressors. And yet in the midst of this gut-churning depiction, he has created a love based on the written word, on intellect, and only secondarily on physical attributes. Naser is every immigrant, unaccepted and lonely, desperate for caring. Fiore is a bit more enigmatic as a character. Risking all as she has done because she feels she hasn't yet lived her own life makes her singular in a society that oppresses the rights of women to their own lives and I'm not entirely convinced that Addonia has drawn her as strong enough to be that character. Then again, as we only see her through her notes and through Naser's eyes, perhaps therein lies the fault of perception.
The beginning of the novel is quite jerky and hard to follow. It took a concerted effort to sink into the story, to follow the flashbacks Naser tells through his diary entries. But eventually Addonia hits his stride and the story pounds along with rising tension and risk pulling the reader through the pages. The ending is both no more than expected and somehow still a surprise. Scenes throughout the book are very visceral and sensory, either visual or even, amazingly enough, tactile. Occasionally Naser was annoying and certainly when he was a bit of a wastrel before meeting Fiore, I struggled to connect with him, but his life and opening himself up to love transformed his character. It allowed the hints of soul and morality the reader glimpses when he refuses to go to the mosque anymore to listen to the blind imam spout hatred against any but the chosen few radicals to come into full flower. Addonia has crafted a heart pounding novel of oppression and love and anyone interested in other cultures will certainly find themselves immersed in a way of life so foreign to those of us in the west as to be unfathomable. I know I won't be so quick anymore to accept the media portrayal that Saudi Arabia is quite westernized and therefore full of many of the freedoms we know here. An eye opening novel and one that I will be ruminating over for some time to come.