The Orchard of Lost Souls, by Nadifa Mohamed, Simon & Schuster, RRP£12.99, 352 pages
Nadifa Mohamed’s second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, opens in 1987 with Somalia on the brink of civil war. In the northern town of Hargeisa – where Mohamed herself was born – the guddi, the regime’s neighbourhood watch, is rounding up people to fill a stadium for the annual October 21 celebrations marking the military coup that brought Mohamed Siad Barre to power 18 years earlier.
Barre’s corrupt regime – embodied in the novel by the fictional General Haaruun – “needs women to make it seem human,” Mohamed writes. She builds the story around the intertwined tale of three women: Deqo, a nine-year-old orphaned refugee, who has been promised a new pair of shoes to take part in a welcome dance; Kawsar, a widow in her fifties burdened by grief; and Filsan, an ambitious soldier.
Deqo is the thread that connects the women. On the morning of the general’s visit she finds herself confused on stage and is beaten for falling out of step. She has only just left the grim refugee camp in which she had been abandoned and suffers a moment of stage fright. Kawsar rushes to her aid, and for her trouble she is arrested by Filsan who beats the life out of her, rendering her unable to walk.
Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy (2010), set in 1930s Yemen, was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize and won the 2010 Betty Trask Award. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows on the heels of her selection as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists 2013. Her characters are believable, strong, self-empowered women. But the novel lacks pacing and tension. Things just happen – bloody, brutal things – and they tend to be presented in rapid-fire succession with no room for menace to fester.
In one section we learn that Deqo never knew her father and was abandoned by her mother; lost her only friend in the refugee camp to cholera; is homeless; goes to jail; gets taken in by a brothel where she lives with prostitutes called Karl Marx, Stalin and China; gets sold by the brothel’s madam; is attacked by an old man, and so on. While Deqo’s physical and emotional insecurity is moving, she never gets the necessary space for tension to build.
Filsan, the soldier, is similarly unclear. Her lines are too neatly drawn; when she does good, it’s very good, and when she does bad – as she does often – then it’s very bad indeed. Filsan has served in what she proudly calls the “third largest army in Africa” for seven years and demands respect but feels she is often treated no better than a secretary. She is a hard character to empathise with: she never misses an opportunity to kick down on someone weaker than her, regards a certain kind of power and violence with awe and is blinded by her own ambition.
Of the three women, it is Kawsar, the widow, who is the most robust; she copes with loss and loneliness with a quiet dignity. Through her tale, Mohamed manages to weave fascinating insights into late-1980s Somalia and its spiral into civil war. We see very plainly the extraordinary amount of violence that women faced and the exploitation of local girls by predatory foreigners. Mohamed writes sensitively and with a keen awareness of her characters’ vulnerability, but The Orchard of Lost Souls is too rushed and the women are lost to the odd pace of the story and its many, many revelations.