An American diplomat assigned to war-ravaged Somalia struggles to comprehend its interminable troubles.
Ray Read’s career in the U.S. Foreign Service seems permanently stalled. He is sent to serve in Somalia, a country whose history and culture he knows virtually nothing about. Greeted enthusiastically by Ambassador Overholster when he arrives, Read is almost immediately thrust into the Byzantine and contentious negotiations that define Somalia’s political life. He discovers a nearly ungovernable nation cleaved by internecine conflict and a litany of warring tribal factions. Read needs to broker a peace between the two most powerful warlords, Aidid and Mahdi, for any progress to be made, but he can’t even get them in the same room. In addition, the ancient acrimony between Somalia and Ethiopia haunts the country’s prospects for peace. Read is initially assigned to a committee devoted to rehabilitation and reconstruction. But his early success wins him a promotion (albeit, an unwanted one) to the disarmament and security committee, charged with a much more daunting mission, compelling Read to mingle with all manner of unsavory types. He quickly becomes a minor celebrity of sorts because of his tenacity and light touch but struggles to understand Somalia’s apparently intractable problems. Meanwhile, he takes a short holiday to Kenya, where he strikes up a romance with a young, beautiful local. In his book, Wentling (Africa’s Heart, The Journey Ends in Kansas, 2015, etc.) shows that he’s a masterful researcher, and his exhaustive command of Somalia’s complex challenges remains admirable. He paints a lively—though appropriately grim—tableau of its extraordinary ailments. But the reader is left with a multitude of questions about the story’s protagonist. Read dominates the narrative while turning out to be little more than a cipher in the unfolding political drama. Readers discover he has marital problems, though not much more than that, and they know little about his motivations for becoming a diplomat in the first place. The plot marches toward the climactic “black hawk down” debacle without providing much insider insight. This is an exceptional piece of political analysis—both thorough and nuanced—but unsatisfying as a human drama.
A wonderful account of Somalia’s troubles that fails to deliver a fully developed protagonist.