I met Nadifa Mohamed briefly when she was one of the Granta novelists who had entered our space. I didn’t understand then what the big deal was about this Somali born novelist so I was happy when I got her 2013 book The Orchard of Lost Souls.
The book is set in a Somalia that we rarely hear about these days; that period when the country was slowly getting into the disarray it currently is in. If you have not been under a rock you will know that Somalia has been without a recognized leader ever since Siad Barre was deposed from leadership in 1991. That’s two decades plus without a recognized government. There have been many efforts to bring the country under one administration but it has been a nearly impossible task with internal and external conflicts always in the way.
The three characters in the book set in late 1980s Hargeisa in North West Somalia are Deqo, Filsan and Kawsar. Deqo is a young refugee girl who was born in a camp by a mother who then abandons her leaving her without any roots. Filsan is a female soldier in the “third largest land army in Africa” who was raised by a hard military father who has been posted away from the capital Mogadishu and hoping to prove herself. The last of these Kawsar is an elderly woman who has lived in Hargeisa for many years with her family and friends.
By some odd coincidence or through the machinations of the leadership, the three women’s lives interact as the Mogadishu regime is falling apart. They meet at a rally at a time when the regime, instead of being more responsive to the people, is becoming progressively harsher and more brutal.
Deqo and her fellow refugee kids are drafted to be singers for a national fete. Filsan is present at the fete as a guard and Kawsar as one of those in the audience. Poor Deqo botches up her performance where she is pulled away by her minders and then starts being beaten up. Fawsar feels sad about this and tries to intervene. Filsan, a tool of the regime, arrests Fawsar for her troubles and leaves her injured at the local police station.
So we are left with Deqo, who had run away after Fawsar’s intervention, wandering the marketplace and living in a ditch. Filsan continues doing her duties in the army and Kawsar, who eventually leaves prison, is left in her house bedridden to be taken care of by a maid. They all meet eventually again.
The book is brilliant. It gives a history of Somalia that I had not thought about. How the country got its independence and then immediately went to war first with Kenya (Shifta War) and then Ethiopia.
It also tells us about the people and their fully functioning lives that are destroyed by a paranoid regime in the capital putting the screw on the rest of the country.
The book is brutal. People are killing and being killed by soldiers and rebels with the dead being looted mercilessly. The fighting gets so grave that some people aren’t even buried but are left to be eaten by vultures and packs of dogs. It is not very pretty. And yet too, there is beauty. There is beauty in Mohamed’s prose as well as the way the tale unfolds showing ordinary people living in extraordinary times and how they cope with the drama that is thrown at them.
Mohamed’s characters are very well researched. My favourite characters are the prostitutes that take in Deqo with the colourful names of Nasra, Karl Marx and China. They show compassion to an abandoned refugee girl giving her a place to sleep and food.
Filsan is also a very interesting character. She was raised by a military father to be just as good as the male soldiers but she starts to eventually realise that the route she took may have not been the ideal one.
Lastly is Kawsar who has lost many children to miscarriages and decides to invest her pain in growing an amazing orchard from where the book’s title emanates. She eventually gives birth to a child but tragedy seems to follow our Kawsar as her only child Hodan dies. She is left alone when her husband dies as well.
At the end of the novel all I am left wondering is; will Falsan eventually get a man? Well – you will have to get the book to find out.
Do I recommend this book? – Without a doubt!