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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Book Review: Three women in a war-torn country

Orchard of Lost Souls book cover
Orchard of Lost Souls book cover

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed brings us a powerful story of Somalia’s revolution as seen through the eyes of ordinary women. In the city of Hargeisa in 1988 live three broken women, each battling their personal tragedies as war descends in the northwestern region of Somalia.

The widow Kawsar is a traditional Somali woman who was once a respected and independent lady. A ruthless beating by the armed forces left her paralysed, housebound, and under the lukewarm care of a young woman. Hardly anybody visits Kawsar and she spends much of her time listening to the radio and mourning her only daughter, who is buried in the orchard behind the house together with her other miscarried babies.

Thirty-year-old Filsar is a fervent female soldier who has recently been posted to Hargeisa to quell the rising anti-government rebellion. Filsar’s mother abandoned the family years ago and she has always longed for the approval of her unconventional but domineering father. In Hargeisa, she becomes enamoured by her immediate supervisor while having to deal with the sexual advances of her military superiors. Very insecure at the core and missing her hometown of Mogadishu, she is also capable of meting out unwarranted violence.

Deqo is a nine-year-old orphan who has escaped from the refugee camp that has been her home since birth. Her only friend is dead, she has no other family and so she runs away to the city with the aim of dancing for a pair of shoes. Only her shrewd mind and quick feet keep her alive in the perilous streets of Hargeisa. Yet she is clueless about the political situation and naïve enough not to recognise the intentions of the kind brothel owner who gives her shelter.

Hargeisa, which has been under the rule of Somali revolutionaries supported by Ethiopia, is coming under increasing assault by the central government. The three women meet briefly during a somewhat forced happenstance at a political rally called in support of the unpopular government.

From this point onwards, we follow the three-part story through the separate experiences of the women as they fight to survive in the once beautiful but now disintegrating city. Against the rumble of military tanks and gnawing drought, the painful history of each woman is revealed.

In the end, they are fated to reunite and it is little Deqo who hatches an innocent plan of escape to fulfil her greatest ambition. The two other women must decide whether to grasp this one chance to flee the war and their past.

Mohamed has created a gripping historical novel of Somalia, with vivid imagery, rich characters and poetic prose. She does not gloss over the atrocities yet there are moments of hope, beautiful descriptions and Kawsar’s dry humour.

Mohamed was born in 1981 during the waning golden days of Somalia. Her family relocated to Britain with her family when she was just five years old because of the worsening situation under President Siad Barre. This is her second book and it was nominated to the 2013 list of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.

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