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
Monday 19 August 2013 12:21 BST
Shelter from the storm: refugees in the Somali civil wars of the 1990s
Shelter from the storm: refugees in the Somali civil wars of the 1990s (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

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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.

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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.

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