The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013; 336 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams


With her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, Nadifa Mohamed affirms her place among other writers of her generation (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being probably the most prominent at the moment) who are mining the revolutionary history of their native countries for essential truths. Mohamed’s affinity for such historical research is evident. The Acknowledgments section at the end of the novel doubles as a bibliography of her key sources. However, Mohamed is doing more than merely reanimating her native Somalia in the historical moments immediately following her own family’s emigration. She’s also reviving the human struggle for morality that often, in times of revolution, gets conflated with war propaganda and mythic notions of indomitable masculinity.

The novel opens as Kawsar, an elderly woman, intervenes on behalf of Deqo, an orphaned refugee about to be punished for giving a bad performance during a government-sponsored rally. Her act of defiance allows the orphan girl a chance to escape, but the police simply arrest Kawsar instead. Following a brutal interrogation scene, a hospitalized Kawsar advises her neighbor Dahabo against revenge, claiming that her interrogator is merely “a child of her time.” Dahabo rejects her friend’s ambivalence and replies, “No, it is the other way around. Those with sick hearts have made the time what it is.”

In the late 1980s, Somalia faced a critical turning point. Two decades prior, Somalis had determined that their nation must be independent from Britain and Italy, but there still remained the matter of how that independence would manifest itself. Would the nation’s newfound unity be affirmed by a military dictatorship or could rebel forces rewrite Somalia’s complicated history yet again? By now we know that rebel forces did eventually succeed in toppling Siad Barre’s regime. Centralized national power became a thing of the past, replaced mostly by the all-too-familiar brand of stability offered by local, fundamentalist rule. But how fully did this seismic political shift reflect the lives and concerns of Somalis? Mohamed’s novel steps in where sweeping overviews like the one I’ve just offered fail. By writing The Orchard of Lost Souls, Mohamed is in effect asking readers to imagine the role that everyday decisions made by ordinary women play in shaping the soul of a country sitting on the brink of revolution.

Dahabo’s insight could be read as the novel’s central point of contention. As Mohamed’s main characters reveal the stories behind their scarred hearts, readers are invited to puzzle over the relationship between personality and circumstance. For example, it initially seems clear that Kawsar’s nascent rebelliousness stems entirely from the pain of losing her only child, Hodan, who dared once to protest the military regime. However, it is eventually revealed that Kawsar’s husband also took a stand against corruption when he served as chief of police. This appears to lend credence to Kawsar’s suggestion that “Hodan must have got it from somewhere.”

Mohamed’s two other main characters, Filsan and Deqo, draw attention to the misogyny that seems to permeate their country. Early in the novel, Filsan, an Internal Security officer, earns a meeting with the esteemed General Haaruun but she quickly discovers that he is only interested in parading her in front of foreign dignitaries and molesting her in the back seat of his Mercedes. Frustrated by the realization that “even in her uniform [men] see nothing more than breasts and a hole,” Filsan eventually takes her aggression out on Kawsar during her interrogation. As for Deqo, the child who is saved by Kawsar’s act of defiance, she faces similar difficulties after being adopted by a prostitute named Nasra. Although circumstance has required Deqo to live as a feral child, vulnerable to her hostile environment from an early age, it soon becomes clear that she has quite a bit of innocence left to lose. Deqo emerges from her time with Nasra possessing little more than a confused sense of her burgeoning womanhood.

As readers will expect, the lives of these three women converge once again by the novel’s end. Although Mohamed isn’t breaking new ground with style or form, she does demonstrate an earnestness that for many readers will be its own reward. With Somalia’s impending Civil War lending the novel a sense of urgency it would otherwise lack, Mohamed’s main characters must each decide whether circumstances will determine their morality or vice versa.