The book in two sentences: Nadifa Mohamed weaves a beautiful and haunting tale of life in a Somalian city as the country is on the brink of civil war. As refugees, soldiers, and rebels pour in, the lives of three women—a widow, an orphan, and a soldier—are bound forever.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): In her novel, Mohamed captures the senselessness of war from the perspective of ordinary people. Even Filsan, the soldier, has never been in combat before and is more a civilian in that sense than the widow Kawsar and even the young orphan girl Deqo, both of whom have lost their families to the growing political turmoil.

You see the buildup towards what will eventually become a civil war from the viewpoint of these three women. The increased presence of soldiers and checkpoints, the arrests of students, the kidnapping and killing of intellectuals, the banning of outside news outlets and journalists, the rationing of food and water, all signs of an increasingly totalitarian government. If you are wondering how things can even get this far, this book begins to answer that question, and it is equal parts compelling and terrifying.

In that way, this book reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Both take place during political and economic instability, but more importantly, both novels are about people trying to make sense of the chaos and the new world they are living in. And this process looks different for each of the three main characters.

Kawsar reflects on the deaths of her husband and children as a result of the country at war with itself. She wants nothing more than to reunite with them and leave this world behind, which looks nothing like the one she remembers. At one point she thinks to herself, “It seems as if the world has been built just for her and is being dismantled as she departs” (277).

Deqo, born in a refugee camp to a mother who abandons her, floats through life feeling untethered to anyone or anything. Without any siblings or ancestors, it is like she has sprung from the earth itself, and tries to fill the gaping hole with some semblance of family.

And finally, Filsan spends much of her solitary time thinking about the military father who has shaped the woman she has become: lonely, driven, and conflicted. She wants nothing more than to show she fits in alongside the men, but at the same time she wants to stand out. Eventually, she will have to choose one or the other.

Overall, I loved the imagery in this book, the attention to even the smallest detail, and the ways in which you see the characters develop as their environment changes. This is the first book I’ve read that takes place in Somalia, and it prompted me to learn more about the history of the country and the surrounding region. If you have recommendations for further reading or if you have comments about this book, please share them below!