Newspaper article International New York Times

After a Terrorist Attack, the Shock of Grief

Newspaper article International New York Times

After a Terrorist Attack, the Shock of Grief

Article excerpt

Nuruddin Farah's "Hiding in Plain Sight" is a novel about displacement.

Hiding in Plain Sight. By Nuruddin Farah. 339 pages. Riverhead Books. $27.95.

"Hiding in Plain Sight" begins with a threat. One evening in Mogadishu, Aar, a logistics officer for the United Nations, receives a letter in the mail. It consists of a single, misspelled word, but it's terrifying all the same: deth! Aar wants to return to his home in Nairobi on the first flight out, but at the last minute, he decides to stop by the office to pick up photos of his children. As he steps out with the pictures in hand, Shabab militants strike the building.

A terrorist attack is a difficult place to start a novel. The writer must compete with a flood of words and images, most of them cliches. But the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah is used to the challenges of turning fact into fiction. Over the last four decades he has written about the homeland from which he was exiled, chronicling its contemporary history and struggles.

In his first novel, "From a Crooked Rib," he wrote about a nomad girl who flees her family's camp after they attempt to arrange a marriage for her with an older man. That book was followed by a trilogy, "Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship," which explored the parallels between colonialism, patriarchy and dictatorship in Somalia, then still under Mohammed Siad Barre's rule. Another trilogy, "Blood in the Sun," examined the effect of internecine conflict, foreign aid and sexual violence on ordinary families. Though different in style from the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun or the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, his work shares with them a preoccupation with capturing snapshots of a country in rapid transition.

"Hiding in Plain Sight" may begin with a terrorist attack, similar to the one that shook the United Nations compound in Somalia last year, but this is not a novel about violence. It is, instead, a novel about grief and love. The news of Aar's death in Mogadishu reaches his half sister, Bella, in Rome, where she works as a photographer. Until now, Bella's life has been free of responsibilities. Her parents are dead, and she has no children. She keeps lovers in three different countries -- a model from Kenya, a sculptor from Brazil and a philosopher from Mali -- but she is not attached to any of them. And her work takes her to exotic destinations around the world. But now, with Aar's sudden death, she travels to Nairobi to take care of his teenage children, Dahaba and Salif.

Bella's maternal instincts toward the children are strong and immediate; she wants to raise them and is prepared to leave behind her successful career and her wandering life. There are custody issues to sort out, however. The children's mother, Valerie, who abandoned them a decade earlier, has suddenly returned and wants them back. …

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