A domestic drama is a prism illuminating the often conflicting cultural and social temperaments of contemporary Africa.
Set primarily in Nairobi, this 12th novel by Somali-born Farah (Crossbones, 2011, etc.) sifts through the personal and emotional fallout of a terrorist attack in Mogadishu that kills a U.N. official who emigrated from his native Somalia decades before. His grief-stricken sister Bella, a model-turned–professional photographer, decides to leave behind her own expatriate life in Europe and resettle in Kenya, where she will honor her brother’s wishes by caring for his teenage son, Salif, and daughter, Dahaba. Saying the least, this arrangement does not please their brash, self-centered mother, Valerie, who arrives in Nairobi with her lesbian lover, Padmini, to stake her claim upon the children, who prefer their more worldly and levelheaded aunt as a legal guardian. With delicacy and compassion, Farah, whose own sister was killed earlier this year in a terrorist bombing while working for UNICEF, fashions a domestic chamber piece where motives, yearnings and regrets intersect among these complex, volatile personalities against a wider backdrop of religious and cultural conflict, social and political upheaval, and even “family values” in post-millennial Africa. Even the most offhand conversations Bella and the other major characters have with Nairobi citizens of varied ages and genders throw unexpected and necessary light upon aspects of a society that the rest of the world knows, or cares, relatively little about. (It’s a solid bet that most readers outside Africa aren’t aware of Kenyans’ bigotry toward the Somalis choosing to live in their country.) Throughout this novel’s big and small incidents, Farah maintains a narrative composure that shuns typecasting, reserves judgment and keeps his readers alert to whatever hidden graces emerge from even the most difficult characters.
An unassuming triumph of straightforward, topical storytelling that both adds to and augments a body of work worthy of a Nobel Prize.