Toward the end of Nadifa Mohamed’s novel The Orchard of Lost Souls, after the Somali army lays waste to the northwestern city of Hargeisa in its merciless war against rebels in the late ’80s, the fighting stops. “The tanks, the planes, helicopters, armored vehicles and cannons have been put to bed and the few songbirds that haven’t fled begin to trill, calling out disoriented, despondent songs to one another for comfort.” However, given that so many of the city’s residents have themselves fled or been killed, the songbirds may find themselves obliged to “be the poets recording what happened here,” muses the tale’s narrator, “indignation puffing their chests and opening their throats wide, the sorrowful notes catching in the trees and falling, if life returns, like dust over heads that would rather forget.”
In reality, of course, several Somali writers have captured—in prose and poetry—the tragedies that have befallen their beleaguered and largely forgotten land, notably the renowned novelist Nuruddin Farah. But a few years ago, Mohamed, who spent her early childhood in Hargeisa but has lived in England since 1986, added her name to the list of those writing fiction in English about Somalia, with her prizewinning debut Black Mamba Boy. Now The Orchard of Lost Souls comes on the heels of Granta’s 2013 inclusion of Mohamed on its “Best of Young British Novelists” list.
Orchard is not as charming or brisk as the picaresque Black Mamba Boy, which chronicles the tumultuous global peregrinations of young Jama (loosely based on Mohamed’s father) in the war-ravaged ’30s and ’40s. The new novel is also more somber and pessimistic. This may have something to do with the fact that its protagonists are two women and a girl, rendering it inevitable that the story venture into gender-specific worlds of pain, discrimination, and “the shame that grows and widens with [girls’] breasts and hips and follows them like an unwanted friend.”
Yet there is another probable reason for the author’s gloomier tone in this book—following the period she depicts here (1987-88), a time during which Somalia slid into civil war, the situation deteriorated even further. To be sure, Black Mamba Boy includes horrific violence (specifically, that visited upon Somalis and other Africans by Italian fascists), but whereas the resourceful Jama always finds a way to cheat death and make his way to another country, in Orchard war and devastation close in on Kawsar, Deqo, and Filsan.
For much of the novel, related in the present tense by an omniscient narrator, Mohamed keeps her three central characters separate, their intersections meaningful but few, until they converge toward the end. Kawsar, a middle-aged widow embittered by the regime’s crimes against its people, anchors the story. (Somalia was governed by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre from 1969, when he seized power in a military coup, until his ouster in 1991.) Kawsar, we learn, has good reason to despise the regime. Five years earlier, security services arrested her daughter, a child, in the mistaken belief that she had participated alongside other students in a nonviolent protest. They eventually released her—but not before torturing her so severely that she went mad. Shortly thereafter, she committed suicide.
Today, Kawsar gets into trouble by physically intervening to protect a girl whom members of the security services are pummeling for forgetting her dance moves during a regime-sponsored rally at a sports stadium. For her trouble over a girl she doesn’t know, Kawsar is arrested, interrogated, and has her hip broken during a savage beating. Laid up in bed back home, “[c]ocooned within a tight wrapping of petticoat, diric, jumper and blankets, her skin pale and clammy, Kawsar feels like an enormous, delicate silkworm cloistered from the sun,” which shines brightly on her small orchard outside and its blossoming fruit trees. The tale now assumes a claustrophobic dimension, and the reader’s interest occasionally wanes. Still, Kawsar’s nostalgic reminiscences about life before and immediately after Somalia gained independence from the British and the Italians in 1960, days filled with patriotism and promise, highlight how things went awry.
Deqo, the girl Kawsar intervenes to protect, is about 10 years old and a newcomer to Hargeisa, having grown up in a Saba’ad refugee camp for victims of the Ogaden War (1977-’78) between Somalia and Ethiopia. Deqo’s mother, who may have been a prostitute, arrived at the camp during the war, gave birth, and abandoned her daughter. Almost a decade later, Deqo joins a Hargeisa-based folk dance troupe for the promise of a pair of shoes she will receive following their performance before senior regime officials at the aforementioned state-sponsored rally.
The most impressive feature of Deqo’s section is Mohamed’s imagining of myriad aspects of a homeless orphan’s life, an existence characterized by a lack of the basic necessities for survival once she has left the refugee camp and failed with the dance troupe. Deqo scrounges for food, picking fruit off the trees in private plots of land and selling them at the market. She sleeps sitting upright in an old barrel smelling faintly of kerosene, as it was recently used by other homeless people to light fires to warm themselves. In occasional light-hearted and even humorous segments (albeit tinged with sadness), Mohamed describes Deqo’s exposure to the luxuries of household life. At one point, a young prostitute takes Deqo in and introduces her to the joys of hair care products. “Thick lather drops into her eyes and sits on her neck; the shampoo smells so good that Deqo keeps stopping to take deep inhalations.”
Filsan, the soldier who beats Kawsar during her interrogation, is Mohamed’s sole morally complex character, and intrigues all the more for it. Eager to prove herself in the Internal Security Forces branch of the military, she becomes progressively more involved in its brutal counterinsurgency measures, despite pangs of remorse. One of her missions consists of serving as information officer for a military force ordered to demolish the much-needed water reservoirs of a remote village, so that rebels cannot use them. Naturally, Filsan comes into confrontation with the angry and helpless villagers. Contrast this with her contribution to another remote village years ago as a teenaged participant in a government-managed literacy program: “She missed living with the blacksmith’s family, teaching in the mornings and late afternoons, learning country songs and dances from the daughters, sitting by the stream at dusk, drinking milk straight from the cow. The whole campaign had been paid for by civilian donations, and even as a 14-year-old she had been treated with respect because she could read and they couldn’t. She wrote down the poems of old men in the new Somali script and they folded her scribblings and tucked them into their clothes like talismans.”
Mohamed doesn’t fully explore Filsan’s reasons for her estrangement from her father, despite its obvious psychological impact on her life, but she discerningly evokes the 30-year-old woman’s homesickness (for Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital) and her fears of creeping spinsterhood. This in turn helps to explain Filsan’s craving for official recognition and her concomitant ruthlessness as a soldier. She “lives the celibate, sterile, quiet existence of a nun, growing nothing but grey hairs. All her life she has been left to gather dust, as unseen as a picture on the wall, and to wail and roar and strike out sometimes seems the only way she will ever be heard.”
In a somewhat simile-heavy book, it is noteworthy that the most searing image concerns an event so affecting that no comparison is required, though the reader’s knowledge of Deqo’s origins serves to crystallize the bittersweet irony of the situation. Toward the end of the story, Kawsar, Deqo, and Filsan embark on a lengthy trek from Hargeisa to a distant destination that offers what their city can no longer provide: meager rations, humble accommodations, basic medical care, and relative safety. The destination in question is a refugee camp.