The Orchard of Lost Souls opens with a crowd scene. It is 21 October 1988, the 18th anniversary of the military coup in which Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in Somalia. The narrative follows three women: Kawsar, a widow in her late fifties, who is marshalled along with everyone else to attend the celebrations; Filsan, a corporal in the army, who is involved in organising the commemorative ceremonies; and Deqo, a young girl from a refugee camp who is one of those rounded up to dance in the performance. Disaster strikes: Deqo inadvertently urinates while dancing and female soldiers begin to beat her up. Kawsar intervenes, and Filsan drags her away to a police station, where she is beaten so badly that she is unable to walk again. Deqo, meanwhile, escapes.
The opening fifty pages are the busiest of the novel. The narrator flits between the three women and recapitulates enough history to locate the novel’s moment. What results feel less like scenes and more like a series of brief cinematic flashbacks. Nadifa Mohamed’s writing is compact and often beautiful, but