The Orchard of Lost Souls
by Nadifa Mohamed
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 travelers, 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, re-imagines 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 "neighborhood
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
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.