A Somali husband and wife living in Norway are pitched into chaos, acrimony, and upheaval after their son embraces radical Islam and dies as a suicide bomber.
As in Farah’s last novel, Hiding in Plain Sight (2014), an act of violence sets in motion a chain of events disrupting a family’s stable life. It is the spring of 2009, and Mugdi, a former Somali diplomat now living in Oslo with his wife, Gacalo, has found out that their estranged son, Dhaqaneh, who fled to their homeland as a jihadi, has blown himself up at the international airport there. Gacalo, upon recovering from her grief, reminds her husband of the promise he made: that they would welcome into their home their widowed daughter-in-law, Waliya, and her two young children from a previous marriage. Mugdi, more than his wife, is bracing for what could be an unsettling culture clash, and his apprehensions grow when he finds Waliya to be sullen, withdrawn, and monastic in adhering to her Islamic faith, demanding that her son, Naciim, and daughter, Saafi, rigidly follow her religious tenets. But both children are attracted by the freedoms their new homeland offers, especially Naciim, who almost from his arrival in Norway yearns to earn enough money to buy a lottery ticket. He also chafes at the many strict rules imposed by his mother, including her fierce opposition to his associating with non-Muslim school friends and their families. The anti-immigrant bigotry of Norwegian citizens looms over this family’s painful transition, exploding at one point with Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 mass slaughter of more than 70 people, including teens attending a multicultural youth camp. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the anti-Western intolerance of Waliya and some of her fellow refugees, which reaches a tipping point with Naciim after he is brutally whipped by an imam as “punishment” for “disrespect.” Between these two violent extremes, Mugdi’s besieged-but-steadfast equanimity, as well as the author’s, provides relatively safe haven from the prevailing tension and strife.
As one of the characters puts it, “Art is a humanizer,” and Farah’s insistence on isolating the humanity in even the most difficult characters is a beacon of hope against fear and loathing.