In 2011, Saudi Arabian novelist Raja Alem became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for The Dove’s Necklace. However, the news was met with controversy, since Alem was also the first co-winner of the award, along with Moroccan writer Achaari.
Some authors and critics—who had accused the Abu Dhabi-based prize of “being too closely allied with governmental powers, discriminating against women and rewarding novels that cater to western interests” in the past—felt that the splitting of the prize in 2011 was a political move to quiet doubters, awarding their first female writer and their first author from the Maghreb region. Two birds with one stone.
Now, regardless of the judges’ motivations five years ago, the new English translation of The Dove’s Necklace will prove to new audiences how incredibly deserving Alem was of the award, beginning with the very first sentence:
The only thing you can know for certain in this entire book is where the body was found: the Lane of Many Heads…
So begins the journey of Detective Nassir al-Qahtani, with the body of a dead woman in an alley in Mecca. The following tale is told through several voices, including the perspective of the alley itself, Abu Al Roos. The alley is omniscient, yet reticent to share details.
I told you this story would begin with a body, but because it’s my story I’ve decided we’re going to hold off on the body for the moment. Let’s not worry about the dead for now, not while we can still chase the living. I’d gone to great lengths to hide all traces of love and revenge, but the body gave us away.
With this unreliable narrator’s voice and the perspective of other characters, Alem reveals the holy city of Mecca, “a dove whose neck is streaked with colors that surpass the spectrum of humanity,” a fascinating, enchanting metropolis full of secrets. As Detective Nassir grapples with the mystery of the dead woman, the alley of Abu Al Roos offers hints, but the answers are buried in memory, imagination, and emails. Correspondence with a mysterious woman named Aisha pulls the narrative along, but Aisha isn’t the only one who’s written something for Nassir to decipher: there’s also Yusuf, who Nassir suspects is writing to ensure he’s involved.
Don’t mistake The Dove’s Necklace for a breezy escape read, just because of the murder mystery in a distant setting. Like a David Lynch film, the novel demands your full attention, asking more questions than it answers. Yet also like a Lynch film, it’s masterly crafted and perfectly paced. Reading The Dove’s Necklace is an intense, near-spiritual experience that changes your perspective of time, space, and memory.
The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem
Published March 22, 2016
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.