Book Review: The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem

If you are looking for a book written by an incredible female Arab author, not just a token piece, but a complex and profound work of art, then this novel is a must-read. Winning the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011, ‘The Dove’s Necklace’ takes us on a journey through modern-day Mecca, confronting many of the pressures that women face on a daily basis. The plot centers around a detective story, trying to solve the mystery of an unidentified female dead body found naked in an alley in a poor part of the city. The disfigurement of her body and the shame of her nudity leave the body unclaimed, and so the journey to find her identity and the cause of her death begins. Unlike a standard detective novel however, Alem expertly locates us using powerful descriptions and at times speaking from the perspective of the alley itself, meaning that at all points we feel fully immersed in the heart of the Islamic world.

Alem from her first-hand experience, gives us an insight into the hidden lives of local women, who face very different pressures to the average female visitor to Mecca, and counters that with the views and perspectives of the central male character Detective Nasser al-Qahtani. Through showing the realities of being constantly covered and unable to express themselves through any visible means, Alem tackles the issue of women struggling to find their identity.

The changing physical face of the city due to encroaching modernization is complimented with a narrative explaining the challenges to traditions and religious practises, showing how a dramatically transforming world impacts regular individuals. We witness how real-world temptations are able to lure Nasser in and cause his integrity to waver, as they do with the city as a whole. In a contrast to many books bringing up the concept of love in a romantic fashion, Alem introduces us to Nasser’s twisted mind where the line between love and voyeuristic obsession becomes blurred.

Do not expect a light and digestible detective novel when you pick up this masterpiece, as the many layers create a poignant and important social commentary that require thought and engagement.

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