A fictionalized account of the tragically brief life of Somali runner Samia Yusuf Omar, who represented her country at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Catozzella writes in the first person as Samia, who dreams from a young age of becoming “the fastest runner in all of Mogadishu,” despite the civil war ravaging her country. At 8 she begins training under her best friend Alì, and though they lack resources—Samia wears tattered running shoes passed down from older children—their resolve soon yields positive results. But after the extremist group Al-Shabaab gains power in Mogadishu, the challenges for Samia build: she is forced to cover herself in a burka and train in secret; Alì’s family flees; and Samia’s father is murdered in a crowded market. Still, Samia’s skill and determination propel her all the way to the 2008 Olympics. An unexpected encounter back in Somalia, however, convinces Samia she has to leave the country if she hopes to continue running. The novel’s transfixing final third follows Samia on her harrowing attempt to immigrate to Europe. She survives brutal traffickers and wildly inhumane conditions for more than a year but drowns in the Mediterranean in April 2012 on the last leg of her journey. The first-person narrative has its drawbacks—in an effort to give readers necessary context, some of the early dialogue can feel forced—but especially during Samia’s migration, it gives the story a spirit and urgency that readers won’t easily forget.
Catozzella’s novel is both an intimate portrait of a heroic young woman and a disturbing look at the horrors many migrants face today.