BOOK REVIEW / A gift horse with a nasty bite: Gifts by Nuruddin Farah, Serif pounds 9.99

THE giving and receiving of gifts - so fundamental in human affairs - is seldom a simple matter. According to the celebrated Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, gifts may be used as instruments of domination; they may corrupt despite the good intentions of the giver.

Farah's heroine Duniya was herself a 'gift', given by her dying father as a bride for his blind crony, who was old enough to be her grandfather. She made the best of it and had quite a diverting set of twins, but was subsequently wary of all offerings, especially between those with power - ie, the men in her society - and those without - ie, the women.

Having been married twice and then watched over by various male relations, Duniya is at last largely self-supporting as a midwife in a Mogadishu hospital. She is determined that her three children should not accept charity from self-appointed benefactors or extended family. Extra strain is put on her scruples when she falls genuinely in love with a financially successful man called Bosaaso, who has worked in New York for 25 years and comes equipped with the video her children crave and a car she finds increasingly useful. While Bosaaso's motives are genuine, too, he must learn to tiptoe round Duniya's premise that gifts are suspect. The negotiations are tense.

The novel's strongest points are the nuance of characterisation, the richness of its symbolism and the unselfconscious interweaving of the mythical with the mundane. It is set in 1985, and its domestic and romantic drama is punctuated by press reports of rain failure and escalating famine. There are implications of collusion between donor countries, multi- nationals and local rulers undermining the country's self-determination and dignity - a subtextual examination of the nature of giving that finds EC countries supplying 'only slightly' Chernobyl-contaminated milk, and Western banks draining profits from hard currency-producing cash crops just to service their loans.

The book was conceived and drafted before the latest wave of Somali famine and civil war, certainly before the US marines were sent in last year on Operation Restore Hope, to which Farah apparently nodded grudging approval. He is said to deplore news pictures which show Somalis only with 'faces empty of everything, save the pains of starvation', and his novel, at least, displays faces full of personality and the expressions of a still-proud culture.

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