North of Dawn. By Nuruddin Farah. Riverhead Books; 384 pages; $27.
Over a dozen novels and almost five decades, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has chronicled the effects on ordinary lives of his country’s upheavals. Some of his characters stay put amid the turmoil; others return from exile and try to fit in, remain afloat and make sense of the chaos around them. “Hiding in Plain Sight”, published in 2014, took a different tack, focusing on a Somali woman who leaves Italy, her adopted home, to care for the children of her murdered half-brother in Kenya. Now, in “North of Dawn”, Mr. Farah charts the fortunes of a Somali family who leave Kenya for Europe.
In this absorbing story, the stakes are raised. Mugdi and Gacalo feel their safe world implode when their Norwegian-raised son returns to Somalia, embraces jihadism and kills himself in a suicide attack. The couple argue about whether to offer sanctuary to his widow and two stepchildren. Gacalo wants to fulfill a promise of care she made before her son’s death. Mugdi frets that his daughter-in-law may turn out to be “a troubled person, or, even worse, a terrorist”.
In the end, Mugdi relents, and Waliya, her daughter Saafi and son Naciim swap their zinc-sheet shack in a Kenyan refugee camp for an apartment in Oslo. After teething problems—“this fellow has a lot to unlearn,” says Mugdi of his grandson—the children acclimatize, assimilate and grow to love their grandparents and to relish their newfound freedoms.
Their mother goes the opposite way. She rails against Western values and refuses to work, learn or integrate. Instead, she fraternizes with an outspoken imam and his radical deputy. Mugdi and Gacalo begin to worry about her connections, and when she is questioned by an anti-terrorist unit, her intentions.
Throughout the novel, from its shock opening to its bitter end, Mr. Farah shines a searching light on family unity and national identity, examining what binds and what divides. There are glitches along the way. In places, the prose is strident or ponderous. Some of the voices are undifferentiated; for the first half of the book, Naciim sounds more like his grandfather than a 12-year-old boy.
But when Mr. Farah’s characters ring true, his novel soars. Along with family friction and cultural clashes he rigorously explores migration and extremism and provides a wealth of insight into Somalia and “Somaliness”. As one character explains: “you can’t do well in a new country if you don’t have a good measure of the one you left behind.”