Nadifa Mohamed's new novel The Orchard of Lost Souls is a haunting look at a nightmarish chapter of world history. The story takes place in Mohamed's native Somalia as the country teeters on the brink of rebellion, and it paints an unforgettable portrait of the conflict through the eyes of three women. It's a tale full of empathy and insight that is an absolute must-read.
The story starts on the day of a major speech in the city of Hargeisa when the lives of three women intersect on a day that changes each of them forever. Nine-year-old Deqo has come to the city from the local refugee camp for the first time for a children's dance performance as part of the day's festivities. When she promptly forgets all the steps and is hauled away by the violent neighborhood watch group, a widow in her mid-50s, Kawsar, steps into help. Kawsar is promptly arrested for threatening the neighborhood watch by a female soldier, Filsan, who is herself reeling from a truly awful day of personal humiliation and professional set backs.
After the incident, Deqo runs away and tries to scrape by alone in the city; Kawsar becomes bedridden after a jailhouse beating; and Filsan finds herself relegated to a far less prestigious division, her career stalled. Yet even as we follow their personal problems and triumphs we also see how their lives and hardships are irrevocably tied up in the country's coming collapse as it slowly gathers momentum.
The Orchard of Lost Souls shows brilliantly how poverty, corruption, rebellion, and lawlessness are far more than abstracts, but forces that ruin individual lives. We see Deqo as she fights to survive while still only a child, helped only by those who would also gladly take advantage of her. We see Kawsar as her sudden helplessness turns her hard and bitter in a way that even her daughter's death did not. We see Filsan crushed and frustrated by the sexism and corruption of a system she has supported her entire life. And brewing underneath is the impending government collapse that will upend their lives even further.
Mohamed's story is firmly, unabashedly, rooted in its Somali context, peppered with Somali words and names. She provides a rare, personal look at the country famous for going more than two decades without a central government. Though it is easy for the international community to write off Somalia as a failed state or a nightmare scenario no one wants to think about, Mohamed shows readers the human side to the story, and in doing so makes it impossible to look away.
The book is an intimate yet sweeping tail of the price paid by society's most vulnerable when injustice runs rampant and when everything goes horribly wrong.
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