Nadifa Mohamed situates The Orchard of Lost Souls in Hargeisa, Somalia, in 1988. It is a turbulent time. The country is in the iron grip of a military dictatorship. As the opposition to military rule gains force, the country descends into a brutal civil war. Mohamed shows the deleterious impact of war by focusing on the lives of three females.
Deqo is a nine-year-old orphan living in a refugee camp. Because she fumbles dance steps in the military parade, she is taken aside by guards and beaten. She manages to evade her captors only to lead a destitute existence on the streets of Hargeisa.
Filsan is a young and ambitious female soldier, fiercely determined to prove herself in a man’s world. When General Haarun singles her out for attention, Filsan assumes he does so because he is impressed with her skills as a soldier. Her hopes of a promotion are dashed when she rebuffs his amorous overtures and is unceremoniously kicked out of his car. Humiliated and angry, she channels her frustration by savagely beating up an older woman brought to the jail.
Kawsar is that older woman. She is in her late fifties and still grieving the loss of her husband and daughter. When she sees the guards beating up on the young child during the parade, she confronts them and is promptly carted off to the squalid conditions of the local jail.
These three lives intersect briefly at the beginning of the novel and then at the very end. In the interim, we are provided with the back story of each of the characters as Mohamed alternates the perspective by weaving in and out of their past and present lives. Each has suffered a trauma: the orphan Deqo is traumatized because she has no family; Filsan is abused by her father and treated as less than by the male-dominated military; and Kawsar is haunted by her daughter’s suicide.
Mohamed paints a compelling portrait of the everyday lives of women against the backdrop of a brutal civil war. She gives voice to their experiences and their fears. As the rebellion gains momentum, corpses line the streets; women and children are slaughtered and their meager possessions stolen; young men carry guns, shooting at anything that moves; the elderly and disabled are tortured and beaten; women are raped. War at any time and anywhere brutalizes all those caught in its tentacles. Atrocities are perpetrated on all sides. And the innocent caught in the crosshairs have no safe refuge. They struggle to hold on to whatever vestige of humanity they have left amidst the horror and the carnage.
The pace of the novel is quick; the writing accessible; the characterization adequate. The ending is somewhat contrived. Filsan’s sudden transformation is rushed and barely plausible. But what emerges from these horrific circumstances is the resilience and dignity of Somali women. Their network of support for each other coupled with a fierce determination to survive against all odds makes this a compelling read.