The opening for The Dove's Necklace by Raja Alem seems to declare that this is a mystery though scarcely a conventional one. I can't say that I've ever read a mystery which begins from the perspective of the street where the body was found. There is a police detective investigating the death. Yet if you were expecting to find out whodunit, you will be sorely disappointed. It can be challenging to even get an identification of a female murder victim in a country where women are completely veiled in public and no one but a close relative or a husband has ever seen her. In some circumstances, solving the case may well be impossible. So Alem's intentions must lie in another direction.
Actually, The Dove's Necklace is more like a thriller. It primarily takes place in Mecca and is awash with secret conspiracies with religious implications and a historical dimension. You might call this an Islamic Da Vinci Code. There is even a looking for clues in paintings sequence late in the book. It's certainly much more literary than anything Dan Brown ever wrote. Alem makes extensive use of unreliable narrators which causes the reader to question what they think they know. I would be wary of drawing any definite conclusions from this book. It's a dark and uncomfortable read.
Yet there's something compelling about it. Every time I thought that I would abandon The Dove's Necklace unfinished, I would come across a powerful character scene, a beautiful prose passage, a piece of history that was previously unknown to me, or some fascinating nugget of Islamic lore.
The character that drew me most is Aisha, an independent minded bibliophile who is mainly known to us through her e-mails that a couple of male characters read with shock or irritation. I wanted to know Aisha's ultimate fate, but the degree of uncertainty woven into the narrative made me unsure about that issue even after I turned the last page. So do I know what happened to Aisha? Maybe I do, and maybe I don't. Some readers might feel frustrated. Others might feel intrigued by the possibilities, and therefore willing to be tantalized by an unresolved conundrum.
Then there are the readers who will be primarily concerned with themes. The Dove's Necklace deals with corruption, modernization, missing physical keys to sacred places and mystical keys revealed in visions. As I expected, the medieval Islamic text The Necklace of the Dove (also called The Ring of the Dove) by Ibn Hazm has something to do with it.
According to my research, Ibn Hazm was born in Islamic Spain where his work was reviled and even burned. He was also imprisoned and expelled from provinces. He wrote The Necklace of the Dove in 1027 after having served a prison term. The significance of this text is open to interpretation, but its focus is both physical and spiritual love.
What do I take away from The Dove's Necklace ? Well, I'm not sorry that I read it because I did learn from some of the content about Islam and Islamic history. I did think that the book was too long. Not all the content was equally interesting. Other readers seem to have stronger opinions about the value of this book than I do.