Somali novel shows war and hope in the eyes of women
In a seminal trilogy on the Somali dictatorship of Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, which held power in the 1970s and '80s, Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah wrote unforgettably of the regime's fellow travellers, who "hide in the convenience of a crowd and clap".
Thirty years on Nadifa Mohamed, who was this year named one of Granta's best young British novelists, reimagines such cheering acolytes in the opening pages of her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls. Her focus is on the reluctant recruits of the Guddi, the "neighbourhood watch", which rallies supporters to a sports stadium to mark 18 years since the military coup that deified a nomadic boy - his mammoth portrait now hanging over the stadium "like a new sun, rays emerging from around his head".
Mohamed, born in 1981 (and aged four when her family fled Somalia), is at one remove from the history Farah experienced, rather as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun was a new-generation take on the Biafra war, to which Chinua Achebe bore painful witness. While, at times, this distance shows in a dutiful assembly of images and references that fail to rise off the page, other moments reveal a tenacious imagination and maturing talent.
Mohamed's muscular yet lyrical 2010 debut, Black Mamba Boy, which won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, charted an East Africa ravaged by Mussolini's rule, by fictionalising her father's journey. This book focuses on women.
The setting is 1987-88, a drought year of "unrelenting, cloudless blue" skies in Hargeisa - the author's birthplace in northwest Somalia - on the brink of civil war. As the rebels move their HQ from London to Ethiopia, revolt festers in the low-rise city, with alleyways the width of a man's shoulder blades, where power is cut at night to stymy the rebels, and the BBC is banned in public spaces, the goal "not just to black out the city but to silence it".
The three central female characters are an ageing widow, Kawsar, bed-bound after a brutal assault at the local police station; Deqo, a street urchin from a refugee camp who is cared for by prostitutes; and Filsan, a young soldier from Mogadishu, a "neat beret perched to the side of her pinned-up hair", who has a "strange combination of femininity and menace".
The plotting around a single incident when these characters come together is overly schematic, as are moments of authorial intrusion (an elderly woman is made to say of her neighbours: "We are the same woman over the ages").
The characters emerge more movingly in separate sections revealing their histories. Kawsar, whose orchard "grew from the remains of the children that had passed through her", wrestles with memories of her only child, detained as a schoolgirl, and lost to her. Her "anger dissipated slowly over months but never left, burning under her like a bed of coals".
Most compelling is Corporal Filsan Adan Ali, veering between a disintegrating self and sinister flashes of violence, who misses seaside Mogadishu so much that "she wakes with its spicy marine scent in her hair". Grappling with period cramps on the eve of a military operation, Filsan hates being alone at almost 30. When ejected from the car of the regional military governor, a menacing hyena in a black Mercedes, for rebuffing his advances, she proves equally brutal in visiting her humiliation on others. Her Achilles heel is her "unknowable father", a modern man who spared her circumcision but had shown her "both tenderness and contempt, cruelty and honour, a glimpse of the world through the bars of his love".
A complex history is often deftly sketched. Wonder at independence ("our first Somali textbooks, our first airline") gives way to the "five-point star on the flag" - the irredentist aspirations to unite a motherland sundered by colonial borders, that spell war first with Kenya then Ethiopia.
Yet history is best revealed in haunting details. A schoolgirl thrown into an army truck "smells fresh, her skin and uniform so scrubbed with soap that her perspiration has the heady, detergent scent that wafts out of the dhobi-houses". In a hospital where nurses demand payment for painkillers, children give blood: "They are being bled dry. The soldier said they should be used like taps."
Filsan's recovery of conscience may be a twist too far, but allows for a breath of hope amid the atrocity.
Guardian News & Media