A Veiled Journey by Nell Brien
(Mira, $5.99, V) ISBN 1-55166-528-X
*****
Every once in a while a reviewer unexpectedly discovers a terrific book and has the rare pleasure of announcing to the world: You gotta read this one!

This is one of those times.

I bought A Veiled Journey thinking it was a romance because it was shelved in the romance section of my bookstore. Wrong. Itís a suspense novel unlike many others in that genre. In an atmosphere where publishers seem to be producing cookie-cutter books, this book stands out as one-of-a-kind. Readers who are tired of the same old thing and are looking for something different should seek out this one.

The story opens in Saudi Arabia in 1958. After three days laboring to give birth, a young Saudi girl is brought in the middle of the night to Tess Ryan, an American woman who is the wife of a State Department official. She is asked to help the girl. In spite of the possible diplomatic complications, Tess takes her to a visiting American ship in the harbor where the Navy doctor, Bob Gould, delivers twins, a boy and a girl.

The girl rejects her baby daughter. She is a concubine as was her mother. In order to save the child from the same demeaning life, the girlís mother implores Tess to take the baby and raise her as her own.

It is now 1990. Liz Ryan is a reconstructive plastic surgeon. She has been invited to a reception for a new hospital wing donated by a Saudi prince. There she meets Prince Abdullah who remarks on her unusual coloring.

After the reception, Abdullah sends her flowers and emerald earrings which causes dissension between Liz and her boyfriend, another physician. Abdullah continues to pursue Liz, but she resists. He contacts Bob Gould, who has remained in touch with Lizís family and is now a professional colleague. As a result, Bob proposes that Liz accompany him to Saudi Arabia as part of a medical team. He suggests that Liz talk to her parents.

Liz had always known that she was adopted but had not known that her adoptive parents had been in Saudi Arabia and the circumstances of her birth. As a result of her motherís revelations, Liz decides to go to Saudi Arabia with the intention of locating her birth mother.

In Saudi Arabia Liz will be confronted with the low status and near-invisibility of women in a repressive society. She will witness a Saudi Arabia which is increasingly under the stress of conservative religious pressures and which possesses a deep distrust of westerners even though the Americans are needed for the nationís defense in the likely event of military conflict with the Iraqis. She will find love with a Saudi prince and debate the wisdom of remaining in the Middle East with the goal of improving the conditions of women. She will face a personal crisis during the height of the Gulf War. And she will learn the horrifying truth about her own origins.

From the gripping prologue to the satisfying conclusion, the plot of A Veiled Journey never lets down. The tension and energy of this story accelerate right up to the final climax.

While there is much to appreciate in this book, the portrayal of the main character is especially praiseworthy. In a genre where the majority of dynamic characters such as Liz Ryan seem to be male, sheís a welcome change. A complex character, Liz is thoroughly American in her attitudes even as she tries to find a balance within the constraints of another culture. The dilemmas that she faces require courage and dedication and have no simple solution. She is committed to assisting Saudi women who have literally no civil or political rights at all even at risk to her own safety. Increasingly isolated from those she can trust, she struggles against the injustices of tradition.

The author has been most successful in conveying a strong sense of setting. For readers who are mostly unfamiliar with Saudi and Middle Eastern culture, this book will be a new experience.

According to the bookís cover, A Veiled Journey is Ms. Brienís debut. I hope that this is only the first of many books by this talented author.

--Lesley Dunlap


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