This intricate new novel, written in English by Somalian author Farah (Maps, 1987, etc.), was recently awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The setting is Mogadiscio on the eve of Somalia's civil war, though the story begins a quarter century earlier in the village where its protagonist, Kalaman, enjoys a childhood blessed by the wisdom of his nurturing grandfather ("Nonno") and the precocious sexual attentions of an older girl, Sholoongo, who is, at various times, his companion, mentor, and tormentor. Then the narrative shifts to the approximate present day. Kalaman, now 33, owns his own computer company, but seems reluctant to marry his girlfriend and father a child, to the frustration of his importunate widowed mother, Damac. When Sholoongo returns home from America (where she became famous as a "shape-shifter" and practitioner of magic), expecting Kalaman to give her a child, the consequent tensions unearth buried "secrets" the several characters have long labored to conceal (which are disclosed in later chapters narrated, in turn, by Nonno, Damac, and Sholoongo). The novel is amazingly densely written; its principals' actions, thoughts, and emotions are rendered with superb clarity and thoroughness in an enthralling psychodrama that, obedient to Nonno's dictum that "it is in the nature of knots to come undone, and . . . of buried things to be dug up by Time," reveals the connections drawing together a tale of a vengeful elephant stalking a man, a stolen birth certificate, a "secret marriage," and other shadowy matters—bringing painfully home to Kalaman the inextricable entwining of the personal and the political (. . . because all of us are holding our trump cards close to our chests, we can never know how best to serve this nation—). Haunting scraps of tribal wisdom, animal fables, riddles, and parables blend seamlessly with the author's incisive analytical prose: a novel that's a genuine—and genuinely disturbing—mystery.
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