A woman “young of heart, strong of body, questionable of judgment, and yet unbending in her doggedness to set things in motion” dominates the prizewinning Somali author’s ambitious, accusatory tenth novel.
It’s set primarily in Mogadiscio, to which native Somalian Cambara returns from Toronto, whence she had emigrated to marry (a lawyer, Wardi), and where her son Dalmar, a victim of his father’s abuse, had died in a drowning accident. Grief-stricken, but stubbornly determined to recover her family’s home from the “minor warlord” who has appropriated it, Cambara reunites with her cousin (and former “putative husband”) Zaak, a drug-addicted underachiever who had returned home preceding her, and efficiently deflects the well-intentioned meddling of her formidable mother, Arda. In a bifurcated narrative that renders detailed flashbacks in past tense, present action in present tense, Farah depicts Cambara’s impulsive plunge into a civil-war–torn landscape, as she fends off possible rapists and thieves, forms bonds with freelance bodyguard Dajaal and his best friend, Bile (to whom she is instantly attracted), befriends two street boys (“armed youth” SilkHair and cryptic preadolescent Gacal) and, through the efforts of tireless, well-connected aid worker Kiin, enters into solidarity with the activist Women’s Network, which encourages her to write a play dramatizing their common plight: “Men are a dead loss to us, and they father wars, our miseries.” This book is both more and less than a feminist parable. Farah offers a powerful, unpleasantly convincing picture of a society in ruins, while lucidly portraying the efficacy of courage and ingenuity marshaled against chaotic forces of exploitation and violence. But Cambara is an unconvincing superwoman: physically imposing, brilliant, indomitable earth mother, creative artist—a veritable African Joan of Arc. Armed teenagers and warlords alike are no match for her.
This is not one of this important writer’s best books; those are still Maps (1999) and Links (2004). But Farah knows his troubled homeland intimately, and everything he writes commands respectful attention.