In 2013, Nadifa Mohamed was named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists”. This is her second novel, set in Somalia in the 1980s as rebel forces clash with the military dictatorship and the country heads towards civil war. The events of this turbulent period are seen through the eyes of three female characters:
* Deqo, a nine-year-old orphan who grew up in a refugee camp and has now found herself homeless and alone in the city of Hargeisa.
* Kawsar, a widow mourning the death of her daughter, who becomes confined to her bed after a violent beating at the police station.
* Filsan, a soldier sent to Hargeisa from the capital city of Mogadishu and feeling homesick for the life she has left behind.
During a military parade at a stadium in Hargeisa, the paths of these three women briefly cross before they are separated again and go on to have very different experiences of this troubled time in Somalia’s history.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Somalia before and I knew nothing about the causes of the civil war or the situation in Hargeisa, so reading The Orchard of Lost Souls meant I had an opportunity to learn something new. Telling the story from three different perspectives allows the author to explore different aspects of the war; through Deqo and Kawsar we see what it was like for people living in and around Hargeisa, trying to survive from one day to the next, while Filsan’s story gives us some insights into the military regime. As you can probably guess, many of the things the women experience are traumatic and brutal, though I won’t go into any details here.
As well as being educational, this is also a compelling story (or stories, as there are really three of them in this one novel) and I was interested in all three characters, although I thought Filsan was much more difficult to like than either Deqo or Kawsar. However, I did have some problems with the structure of the novel, especially at the beginning. For the first fifty pages of the book, the viewpoint switches rapidly between each of the three women which I found very overwhelming and confusing. I was relieved to discover that this didn’t continue all the way through the book! The opening section was followed by three longer sections concentrating on one character at a time, so I was able to get to know each of them separately before they eventually meet again near the end of the novel.
I can see why Nadifa Mohamed has won awards for her writing because she clearly has a lot of talent and her descriptions of Somalia are beautiful. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages, where Filsan remembers the streets of Mogadishu:
In the centre of the city where the alleys narrow at points to the width of a man’s shoulder blades, you can walk as if in a dream, never certain of what might appear after the next bend: a bare-chested man with a silver swordfish slung over his thin black back, a shoal of children reciting Quran from their wooden slates, a girl milking a white, lyre-horned cow. The place has enchantment, mystery, it moves backward and forward in time with every turn of the feet; it is fitting that it lies beside an ocean over which its soul can breathe, rather than being hemmed in by mountains like a jinn in a bottle.