- Somalia’s convoluted political history can be difficult to follow but in The Orchard of Lost Souls Mohamed focuses on the chaos in Hargeisa and the immediate countryside.
The year is 1988 in Somalia’s northern city of Hargeisa. It is the period preceding the overthrow of president Siad Barre and the subsequent declaration of independence by Somaliland.
Into this chaotic political landscape British-Somali author, Nadifa Mohamed, introduces three generations of women, each unknown to the other but whose lives are destined to intertwine.
Kawsar is a traditional Somali woman, circumcised as a child, now a respected widow and bedridden after a brutal encounter with the police. She depends on infrequent visits from friends and the half-hearted attention of a young carer. In between, she mourns her late husband and her daughter who died tragically and is buried, along with her miscarried babies, in the garden of fruit trees behind her bungalow.
Filsan, a zealous female soldier, is the antithesis of the stereotypical Somali woman. She is the only child of a modern-minded but cruel father and a mother who abandoned the family. Filsan, 30, has recently arrived from Mogadishu to tackle growing anti-government dissent in the north. She falls in love with her supervisor before a fatal incident almost destroys her.
Nine-year old Deqo is an orphan. Born in a refugee camp where her mother deserted her at birth, she escapes the only home she has ever known after the death of her dearest friend and heads for the city in the hope of getting a pair of shoes. Resourcefulness and sharp survival instincts keep her alive on the dangerous streets. However, Deqo fails to realise that the women who give her shelter are prostitutes.
A skirmish at a political rally early in the book briefly throws together the three women in what feels like a contrived encounter. After this, much of the story is a three-part account told from the perspective of each character.
Against the clamour of war, endless political broadcasts and crumbling infrastructure, we follow them in their fight for survival and the quest to fill the emptiness of their lives.
Somalia’s convoluted political history can be difficult to follow but in The Orchard of Lost Souls Mohamed focuses on the chaos in Hargeisa and the immediate countryside.
In between, there are glimpses of the delightful city it once was with cinemas, hotels, libraries and museums, where people wrote poetry and drank espressos at Italian cafes. Now the streets are ruled by Guddi militants of a regime that is tightening its grip on the citizenry.
Mohamed does not underplay the atrocities of war and violence towards women. We see Filsan endure sexual harassment from her army superiors and yet she demonstrates an equal capacity to mete out cruelty.
Air raids and house searches increase the tension but Kawsar refuses to leave Hargeisa, despite growing lonelier with the departure of her friends. Living on painkillers and memories of the past while hovering on the brink of an all consuming grief, she shows exceptional composure at the unexpected reappearance of her victimiser.
In the fated reunion of the three, Deqo engineers an escape plan and the others must decide whether or not to take a chance and flee the madness, war and loneliness.
Mohamed has created convincing characters and demonstrates a good understanding of the thought process of a child, a woman and a matron.
This gripping historical drama is Mohamed’s second book. She was born in Somalia 35 years ago and emigrated to Britain as a child because of the war. The Orchard of Lost Souls was selected for the 2013 Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists award.