THE ORCHARD OF LOST SOULS
Author: Nadifa Mohamed
Simon & Schuster RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
In 1988, I was in Year 11 of school, oblivious to much of what went on beyond my world of friends, school, boys, music and fashion. I knew there were wars, famines and other catastrophic events happening, but as is the way of most teenagers, I heard, nodded, and forgot. The Orchard of Lost Souls took me back to my teenage years and showed me how other ordinary people lived (and still live today) in a place far from ordinary as I knew it then and know it now. It’s an evocative tale, beautifully told, and I am glad my eyes are open now for this insight.
Set in Hargeisa, Somalia in 1988, The Orchard of Lost Souls tells the story of three women whose lives become intertwined as the country falls into civil war. The story begins as whispers of revolution travel on the dry winds, giving hope to those suffering under a brutal dictatorship. Born in a vast refugee camp, nine-year-old Deqo has been lured to Hargeisa by the promise of her first pair of shoes. When she freezes during a dance performance for officials, she is beaten; Kawsar, a fifty-something widow, witnesses this and intervenes, resulting in her arrest while Deqo escapes. Imprisoned for her “crime”, Kawsar is severely beaten by a young female soldier, Filsan, who has moved from Mogadishu to suppress the rebelling growing in the north. The savage beating leaves Kawsar with a broken hip, and after her release, she is confined to her house, unable to look after herself.
After the police station incident, the women’s lives continue separately before they meet again. It’s a period in which each one has to adjust to their new circumstances, aside from the unrest happening around them. Filsan, after a disturbing incident that results in the death of several villagers, becomes increasingly disenchanted with what’s happening in her country. Unable to return to the refugee camp, Deqo learns to fend for herself before finding a place to live with some of the town’s prostitutes. Kawsar, fiercely independent before the beating, has to rely on a teenage girl to help her, leading to depression and bitterness. As war breaks out, each one finds themselves alone again until circumstances bring them together. In this unexpected togetherness they find redemption, forgiveness and hope.
I love how the imagery of a thriving orchard, with branches reaching for the sun, underlies this novel. There is an orchard – it belongs to Kawsar, but the physical orchard is entangled with the memory of babies she was not able to bring to term. That itself is powerful imagery. However, for me, the orchard represents the growth of the women throughout the novel – all in some ways, are almost lost souls as their lives unravel, but still their characters grow and the reader is left with the feeling that together they will flourish and bear “fruit”. They will also nourish each other, as fruit does the body.
Written in the present tense, the book has a compelling sense of immediacy that heightens the impact of the dark and depraved setting and events. The writing is intense, vivid and emotive, delivering a story that’s harrowing and bleak at times and heart-warming at others. The depiction of neighbours and friends helping each other in times of crisis was a welcome reminder that good can be found in bad circumstances; I particularly liked the way Kawsar’s relationship developed with the surly, teenaged Nurto.
Mohamed’s insight to the ravages of war left me haunted and thoughtful. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a book that’s beautifully honest and raw, and the sense of having read something really special.
Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Bookish treat: I have a teeny “orchard” outside my window and our nectarines are divine this year. Nectarine jam on toast – that’s my treat for the day.