Simon & Schuster, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Book review: The Orchard of Lost Souls, By Nadifa Mohamed
From Somaliland's bitter past blooms a moving and mature novel of conflict and survival
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Friday 16 August 2013
Nadifa Mohamed's debut novel, Black Mamba Boy, was her father's story – he was the fictionalised boy who walks across countless miles of scorched terrain to escape the devastation that Mussolini's occupying forces wrought in the East Africa of the 1930s. The success of that novel was confirmed with Mohamed's inclusion in Granta's list of best young British novelists this year.
Now comes The Orchard of Lost Souls, which deals in some of the same themes as her debut. First, the likenesses between the two: this novel is again set in Africa, though this time in Hargeisa, Somaliland. It is 1987, a time of civil war when the sheen of the unified Somali nation's independence has worn off and military rule – along with violent clashes with rebel forces – has left society ravaged.
It is also a survival story, though this time three females – Deqo, a street child, Kawsar, an infirm widow who has lost her daughter, and Filsan, a zealous female soldier – are caught in the cross-hairs of conflict. All three are doing what they can to get by in a war that is dehumanising those who survive it.
A single incident splays out to form the narrative structure. The women's fates collide as Deqo is chased by Filsan, before Kawsar comes to the girl's rescue. In this momentary tussle, a chain reaction is sparked and we follow, one by one, the subsequent stories from the point of view of each.
All the stories are shocking, and affecting. Mohamed enters the head of each woman and proves she can write of an adult's view of war as convincingly as she can about its disruption of a child's world. As hard a person as Filsan is to like for her fanaticism, Mohamed succeeds in gaining the reader's empathy: Filsan is a broken woman, just like Deqo and Kawsar, and each is battling with the ghosts of loved ones lost.
If Mohamed's first novel was about fathers and sons (Jama embarked on his journey to find the father who abandoned him), this one is essentially about mothers and daughters. Kawsar is mourning not just her husband's death from natural causes but also her daughter's violent end; Deqo is "mothered" by prostitutes, but her own mother abandoned her in a refugee camp shortly after giving birth; Filsan, as inured to pain as she appears, is tormented by her mother's abandonment of her (which her father enforced as a condition of divorce).
Mohamed has grown as a writer with this work. There is none of the uncertainty or stagnation that can easily come with the "difficult second album", especially in the case of a young author who creates waves of acclaim – and expectation – with their first offering. Here, her writing shows signs of maturity and a greater richness in characterisation. There is also a robust poetry to her prose which never sounds precious: Kawsar feels her body "like a city coming back to life after a long night", and Deqo sleeps in a barrel, "trapped like a breech birth in a hard, dead womb".
There has been a strong offering of war fictions this year: among them, Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man on the Balkans conflict, and Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden on Afghanistan. Mohamed, who lived in Hargeisa until war drove her family to London, adds to this body of work.
The three women's worlds collide once again, to offer what might be deemed too unconvincing a happy ending in a time and place so bereft of happiness.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Saudi Muslim cleric claims the Earth is 'stationary' and the sun rotates around it
Skrillex and Diplo's 24-hour DJ set shut down by police after 18 hours
Drake matches The Beatles' record with 14 singles in top 100 chart at the same time
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'