Hargeisa, Somalia, was balanced on a fragile precipice in the fall of 1987—held in the grip of a powerful dictatorship, with signs of revolution emerging with ever-increasing frequency. Nadifa Mohamed’s moving, thought-provoking second novel, following Black Mamba Boy (2010), focuses on three female characters caught up in the maelstrom whose lives intersect in unforgettable ways.

Deqo is a young orphan girl who has come to Hargeisa from the local refugee camp. She is drawn to the relative safety of the city, where she sleeps in a barrel under a bridge, thus escaping the notice of the Guddi, the neighborhood watch group that supports the regime. The clothes she wears she has “grabbed from the wind . . . items that ghosts have left behind.” In return for her first pair of shoes, she signs up to dance in a pro-government rally to be held in Hargeisa’s stadium.

Also at the stadium that day is Kawsar, a widow in her late 50s who comes to the rally with friends—all forced to attend by the Guddi, though none supports the regime. When Kawsar sees Deqo being punished for not following the Guddi’s precise directions, she steps in to defend the girl—and their wrath then turns on her. Deqo manages to escape, but Kawsar is hauled off to the police station and placed in a group cell. Instead of being released after a brief interrogation, as she anticipates, Kawsar has the misfortune of confronting Filsan, a fervent young female soldier relocated to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help suppress the growing rebellion. Filsan takes out her dissatisfaction on Kawsar, whom she first questions, then savagely beats “like a disobedient donkey.”

With a broken hip and pelvis, Kawsar is confined to her bed, unable to join her friends, who are preparing to leave the country before war breaks out. Deqo is still in hiding nearby and Filsan, who has become disillusioned with the military and its tactics, looks for a chance to escape the disintegration of her world that she know is fast approaching.

Mohamed and her family left Somalia in 1986, the year before the outbreak of the civil war about which she writes so eloquently. The story she has fashioned around these three resilient characters and how they survive is one that will resonate with readers for a long time.

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