North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah: A review

Nuruddin Farah is a celebrated Somali novelist who is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He frequently writes about the effects and costs of terrorism in today's world and when he does, he speaks from personal experience. His sister, who was a nutritionist working for UNICEF, was murdered along with at least 20 others in a bomb attack by the Taliban on a restaurant in Kabul 2014.

Despite his fame in the literary world, I was unacquainted with him before reading this book. I saw a review of it several weeks ago and was fascinated. I immediately added it to my reading queue.

Farah's protagonists here are far away from the centers of terrorism in the 21st century. They are an expatriate Somali couple, Mugdi and Gacalo, living in Oslo. Mugdi had been an ambassador for Somalia in Norway back when Somalia was a recognizable and organized country. When the country tore itself apart in civil war and descended into chaos, they became part of the Somali diaspora and sought refuge in Norway, eventually becoming citizens. 

This all happened back in the 1990s and Mugdi and Gacalo, along with their son and daughter, made a comfortable life for themselves in Oslo. But their Norwegian-raised son, in his years of rebellion, joined a radical Islamic cell in Oslo and eventually fled to Somalia to pursue jihad. He became involved with the terrorist organization Al Shabaab and assisted in several terrorist attacks. Eventually, he blew himself up in a suicide attack in Mogadishu.

Mugdi is shocked and disgusted by news of his son's activities and his manner of dying. He wants nothing to do with his memory and says, " How can I mourn a son who caused the death of so many innocent people? I explode into rage every time I remember what he did."

For Gacalo though, her son is still her son, regardless of what he did and she had made a promise to him that if he should die, she would take care of his wife and his two stepchildren. She honors that commitment and makes arrangements to bring them to Oslo.

The widow, Waliya, is a devout Muslim, although she had not always been so observant. Mugdi and Gacalo are cultural but not practicing Muslims. Clashes seem inevitable.

The two stepchildren, a boy and a girl, are twelve and fourteen years old when they arrive. Though Mugdi and Gacalo have a prickly relationship with the mother, they become loving grandparents to these two traumatized children.

The war between Mugdi/Gacalo and Waliya is a stand-in, a model, of the global clash between fundamentalism and secularism. Farah writes of this relationship in intimate and nuanced terms. The result is an incisive and withering portrait of a family soap opera. In revealing how a family falls apart, he gives us a representative of how the nation falls apart. It is a powerful story.

Unfortunately, the prose here does not rise to the level of the story that is being told. It is often clunky and less than graceful. There's no indication that the book was translated and so I assume it was written in English but the language often seems clumsy and filled with cliches. Moreover, the dialogue given the various characters, particularly the teenagers, frequently seems dissonant with unlikely phrasing.

Initially, I thought to rate the book at four stars because it is an interesting story with well-developed characters, but the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by that clunky writing. So, three stars it is. 

Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile read with its view of how the families of violent jihadists are affected by that member's actions. It is perhaps something that we don't often consider, but they, too, can be victims. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars      


  1. Too bad the writing didn't match the story. It is a great premise.

    1. Yes, it is and it was very thought-provoking. I'm glad I read it. I'm not familiar with Farah's style of writing so I don't know if the style here was normal or a deliberate choice and a divergence from his usual style, but it bothered me enough in the end to rate the book lower than I normally would have.

  2. I looked up the author. He began writing in English early in his career but it is entirely possible that his storytelling is influenced by his Somali culture/language. Thank you for introducing me to this author.

    1. He's an interesting writer. I'm glad to have made his acquaintance also.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry Sunday: Don't Hesitate by Mary Oliver

Overboard by Sara Paretsky: A review

The Investigator by John Sandford: A review