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The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

book cover of The Orchard of Lost Souls

A couple of years ago I read Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy, and was somewhat underwhelmed. It did lead to me becoming aware of this book's existence though, which sounded more interesting, and now that I've read it I can happily say: I enjoyed it much more.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is set in Hargeisa, Somalia, in the late 1980s. It follows three female characters whose stories only occasionally overlap: nine-year-old street child Deqo, elderly widow Kawsar, and the ambitious soldier Filsan. Each of the stories is desperately sad in its own way, but rich in detail that lets you imagine what Hargeisa might have been like in the days and months before it was levelled in Somalia's civil war.

For me, the story that I enjoyed the most was that of Filsan, precisely because she's not an “innocent victim” of the conflict: indeed in many ways she's one of the “bad guys”, as a diligent soldier in the Somalian army. But she's depicted more sympathetically than that even as the atrocities of her brothers-in-arms are described in unflinching detail. You get the sense that she's caught in something bigger and nastier than she ever anticipated. There's a scene towards the end, in a hospital, which is particularly chilling.

The other two stories are interesting too, though. What all three share in common is that they explore the hierarchical nature of Somalian society at that time – the way the rich devalue the poor to the point of nothingness; the way women are oppressed in a traditionally patriarchal land; the way the police and the military brutalise anybody who stands against them. The story starts violently, but this escalates over the book until an ending which is ghoulishly bloody. But where both the beginning and the end are violent, they're also characterised by acts of solidarity between strangers, which was a welcome human note given situations that were otherwise horrendously bleak.

Overall, this is not exactly the kind of book you read to cheer yourself up, but it's immersive and it gave me a little more insight into what Somalia (and, now, Somaliland – the region that this book takes place in seceded) has been through in recent history. I'm glad I gave this author another try.

★★★½

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.