Set in the Somali city of Hargeisa in 1987, The Orchard of Lost Souls is the story of three females – nine-year-old Deqo, an orphan born and raised in the Saba’ad refugee camp; Kawsar, a well-off widow in her 50s whose late husband was the city’s chief of police before the public offices were purged; and Filsan, an ambitious young soldier in her late 20s, more committed to the cause than any of her male peers, originally from the country’s capital, Mogadishu, but who volunteered to come north to Hargeisa, the “coalface of internal security, where real work can be done defeating National Freedom Movement bandits who persist in nipping at the government’s tail”.
This is a country under the strict rule of a military dictatorship. The novel opens with the October 21 celebrations (in memory of the military coup in 1969). Kawsar and her friends are up early to make their way to the city’s stadium; an audience of “simple, smiling cartoons with no demands or needs of their own” the government can proudly parade in front of visiting dignitaries. Deqo is in the arena below among a dance troupe of children from the refugee camp, lured by the promise of a pair of new shoes as a reward for her patriotic hard work. Meanwhile, as part of her new job, Filsan is watching over the celebrations, making sure nobody steps out of line.
Deqo knows the dance by heart, but, expectation weighing heavily on her young shoulders, suffocated by the dust that swirls up from the ground beneath the stamping feet, and disorientated by the heavy, loud beat of the band, she freezes – a single still point “at the heart of the swirling mass of dancers”. Looking down on the spectacle, Kawsar’s heart goes out to the “forlorn” little girl as the Guddi descend on this mini-insurrectionist, dragging her away to be punished. Something breaks loose inside Kawsar, “something that has been dammed up – love, rage, a sense of justice, even”, and she intervenes in the little girl’s fate. Deqo escapes her captors, but Kawsar pays a costly price for her interference. Filsan has her thrown in jail and, trigger-happy after a day of her own disappointments, she teaches the stubborn old woman a lesson with a savage beating.
Brought together in this manner, their three lives diverge again as the consequences of the day’s events play out differently for each. Deqo is taken in by a kind-hearted prostitute, earning her keep as a maid and errand girl, but the security she finds there is short-lived and the little girl soon finds herself out on the streets, in the middle of a war zone; bombing raids by the government forces are destroying the city and killing its inhabitants in an attempt to drive out the rebel forces. Kawsar is stranded at home as the city falls around her. Her hip and pelvis badly broken, the doctors declaring their charge too old to warrant the operation she needs to walk again, she ossifies in her bed: “From a two-legged creature she has grown four metal feet, the mattress moulded to her flesh, its springs entwined with her ribs.” Listening to the news on her radio, her country doesn’t make sense to her anymore: “Policewomen have become torturers, veterinarians doctors, teachers spies and children armed rebels”, so she gulps down painkillers and hopes death will take her quickly. Filsan, of course, is kept busy by her military duties, but even she becomes increasingly disillusioned as the servitude she experiences is a far cry from the proud service she imagined. She dreamt of life as “a new kind of woman with the same abilities and opportunities as any man”, but instead she’s objectified by the men around her in the basest terms and feels as if nobody actually sees her, she’s just “left to gather dust, as unseen as a picture on the wall”.
Although written by a daughter as an homage to her father, Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel, Black Mamba Boy, was a story about fathers and sons – the account of her father’s childhood journey across Africa and beyond in search of his long lost father.
With The Orchard of Lost Souls, she balances the scales with a tale of mothers and daughters. Kawsar is grieving her lost children – those she never carried to term, and the daughter she lost to suicide – while both Deqo and Filsan’s lives are pockmarked by the empty holes left by their absentee mothers. Deqo’s a “cuckoo among the other camp children”, a “sapling growing out of the bare earth, while others are branches on old, established trees”; her mother arrived at the refugee camp heavily pregnant, gave birth to her child then abandoned her without even naming the baby. Filsan’s mother left her marriage, her husband only agreeing to release her if she relinquished their daughter to him.
Together, Mohamed’s three protagonists shed light on female experience in a country that encourages physical emancipation – a general boasts to his foreign guests about “how strong” Somali women are: “We don’t have any of that purdah [exclusion of women from public observation] here. Women work, they fight in our military, serve as engineers, spies, doctors.” But sometimes still practice female circumcision and definetheir women’s lives in terms of reputation and shame: even little Deqo “is aware of how the soft flesh of her body is a liability”.
That the story comes full circle and the three are reunited, albeit under more levelling circumstances, is a neat narrative inevitability, but there’s a deeper message at work here about female solidarity and survival.
Mohamed skilfully wears the distinctive skin of each of her protagonists in turn; Deqo’s child’s eye view of walking past a school full of “loved children” as convincing as the “sepia images and sunken sounds washing up from the seabed of [Kawsar’s] mind”. But brittle, troubled Filsan, uneasily poised on the fine line between lawbreaker and keeper – her barracks room increasingly seeming more a “criminal’s lair than a soldier’s quarters” – is an achievement in herself. A thousand crimes can be disguised as the “necessities of war”, until, that is, she’s confronted with a room full of high-school students being “bled dry” in a hospital, “used like taps”. Through Deqo’s eyes, we’ve seen men shot dead in the street, their bodies ravaged by dogs, but nothing quite shocks like the efficiency of nurses just following orders, “like the cannibals of old tales: totally ordinary yet irrevocably depraved”.
In the aftermath of Kawsar’s beating, her friend Dahabo declares she’d skin Filsan alive if she ever got her hands on her. Kawsar’s stoical response is to describe the soldier as “a child of her time”. Dahabo, however, disagrees: “No, it is the other way around,” she insists, “those with sick hearts have made the time what it is.” Mohamed doesn’t come down on one side of the argument or the other, but in humanising all concerned she presents a cobweb of complex multifarious strands.
This is a beautiful novel, violent but hopeful, that proudly confirms Mohamed’s place on this generation’s list of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.