Keija Parssinen's novel provides window on to Saudi Arabia
Home for Keija Parssinen is a house perched on a limestone cliff at the edge of a quarry in Missouri. She wrote her debut novel at a desk made of local barn wood that is 100 years old. It's a picture of bucolic bliss so far removed from the setting of The Ruins of Us - the eastern province of contemporary Saudi Arabia - that it's hard to imagine she'd be comfortable telling a story about a Saudi billionaire's family without resorting to empty cliché and generalisation. It's a state of affairs not entirely helped by the back of the book, which somewhat slushily promises a "sweeping novel of love and betrayal".
But Parssinen certainly does know what she's talking about. In 1980, she was born in Al Khobar, and grew up in Saudi Arabia on - but not restricted to - one of the Aramco compounds.
"Myself and my mother both experienced this overwhelming nostalgia for the place when we left," she says. "I really felt that my home was taken away from me as a 12-year-old. "
So writing The Ruins of Us was in some ways a chance for Parssinen, now in her early 30s, to try to reconnect with a place she never got to explore fully. She does so expertly - the revelation that Abdullah, married to an American woman, has secretly taken a second wife is merely the starting point for a novel that becomes a family drama, a fascinating insight into expatriate and Saudi society, and, in the end, a thriller as his teenage son Faisal gets mixed up with a fundamentalist group.
"I was really daunted when I started it," she says. "I know all the contradictory things written about Saudi. I know, having lived in New York post-September 11, that there's this fear and demonising of the place and I really didn't want to add to that.
"So the way I approached it was through this family - an American mother Rosalie and a Saudi father. The radical son Faisal, and the daughter, Mariam, who is quite progressive, writing her blog and defying traditions. It became easier to control, less polemical, that way."
Parssinen cites Alaa Al Aswany's influential 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building as a blueprint for her own book, in that each character represents a certain political viewpoint. And while The Ruins of Us may struggle to have the same impact on readers of Arabic fiction, arguably it has a far more laudable goal: she wanted western audiences to understand Saudis, while also providing an insight into the expatriate experience she calls "the third culture".
"There's Lucy Caldwell's book set in Bahrain, but really there is a dearth of 'expat lit' set in the Gulf. Which I find strange, as so many people have lived there for decades, even grown up there - like me. I've had some tell me I've made tangible an experience they'd struggled to understand, which is very gratifying.
"But beyond that narrow group, I really hope the book can somehow show there are people with vastly different belief systems in Saudi," she says. "OK, they may not be at leisure to speak out about it, but in the book each person demonstrates a different level of faith and political involvement."
It will be interesting to see reactions in the West. This is a challenging book - in fact, Parssinen admits that Rosalie is too contrary a character for a lot of western women. In the United States, she regularly gets asked why Rosalie doesn't fight more tenaciously for her rights.
"They can't believe she would subject herself to that kind of culture, with its restrictions and rules. But they forget that Rosalie grew up in Saudi. She goes back there with Abdullah knowing that this could easily happen, that she would have to give up a lot of herself to be with this man she loves. Her eyes are open.
"Yes, she's very indignant about the situation she finds herself in, she feels betrayed and shocked, but at the same time she comes to terms with living in a culture that permits his behaviour. So if she wants change, she'll have to leave."
Which might sound submissive, but Parssinen's intriguing characters are never fully black and white.
"Actually, I think there is a change in her," she says. "She's never been forced to figure out who she is and what she wants before because she's given herself over to her husband and his culture. But there's a sense that she is, at 47, finally doing the hard work of defining who she is."
And this idea of people of all ages - and perhaps even countries - struggling to find their place in the 21st century is key to The Ruins of Us. The book is not available in Saudi, but Parssinen is looking forward to a Skype session with a book club in Ras Tanura whose members have already downloaded it to their iPads from international websites.
"I can't wait to hear what they have to say," she says. "You know, I'm often asked what the future might hold for Saudi, and it's so difficult to judge. Bloggers are starting to be bolder, there is definitely more freedom allowed than when I was there," she says. "I'm just grateful that the process of writing this has given me a more realistic understanding of the country."
• The Ruins of Us (Faber) is out now
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Published: March 13, 2012 04:00 AM