Excerpt from The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Orchard of Lost Souls

By Nadifa Mohamed

The Orchard of Lost Souls
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2014,
    352 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucy Rock

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Some of the schoolgirls start snivelling again as they look around the cell. Deqo rolls her eyes at them; she feels superior to these naive, sheltered girls who protest while knowing nothing of what the real world is like. They cannot appreciate the roof above that will keep them dry, the bodies that will keep them warm, the dripping tap in the corner that will quench their thirst. The women and girls shift constantly, trying to stand as far from the waste bucket as possible. Every breath Deqo takes is shallow and cautious; this smell sends her back to the refugee camp and the cholera outbreak that ended Anab's life and nearly her own, both of them falling asleep but only one of them waking up. In the ditch she has at least become accustomed to space and the fresh scent of trees.

Some of the prisoners look comfortably at home. One young woman is breastfeeding her baby and chatting, her legs stretched out. Her friend is dressed gorgeously in pink and silver, with black hair dyed gold at the tips. They seem untouched by the situation around them. In contrast, the girls with the plaits appear to have been in the cell for weeks. One of them is barefoot, her trousers blood-stained near the crotch, another has small, circular scorches all over her bare arms. All of them are emaciated, their hips like metal frames under loose trousers, their necks long and drawn, their dark-lashed eyes sunken into black holes. Policewomen in navy uniforms pass by the cell bars, their trousers tight across their backsides. Deqo wonders what the girls have done to be treated so badly and if she will be kept inside with them. Looking between them and the pretty women, she manoeuvres closer to the pretty ones to see if their good luck will spread to her.

'… that he is free, that the last child wasn't even his own,' the one with gold-dipped hair is saying.

'You believe him?' replies the mother.

'No, but what can I do? I have been bitten by love.'

'Well, bite it back,' she laughs.

Deqo laughs too and they look up suspiciously.

'Didn't anyone tell you it's rude to eavesdrop?'

Deqo smiles apologetically.

'Let her be, she's not doing any harm. What are you doing here? You stole?'

Deqo shakes her head violently. 'I don't know, ask these people,' she gesticulates dismissively towards the students, 'they put me in trouble.'

'Is that so?' she smiles. 'What is your name?'

'Deqo. What's yours?'

'Nasra, and this is China and her son Nuh.'

'Why are you in here?'

The women look to each other and chuckle.

'It is part of our job,' Nasra answers coyly.

*   *   *

The policewoman has a neat beret perched to the side of her pinned-up hair and possesses a strange combination of femininity and menace.

'Which one of you is Waris Abdiweli Geedi?' she calls in a harsh voice.

The fragrant girl pushes past the others and presents herself before the policewoman, who beckons her out of the cell with a henna-painted finger before locking the door again. The prisoners ease into the small space the girl has left behind. To Deqo's amusement, fragrant girl does not so much as look back at those she has left behind; the girl who had thrown her arm over her in the truck is left to stand there, head hanging. Deqo is pleased: when arrogant people like that are are forced to see how little they really matter she feels a small charge of satisfaction.

One by one the schoolgirls are called, bailed out and hustled home by their fathers, mothers, uncles and elder brothers. They are released before the boys to protect them from shame; the shame that grows and widens with their breasts and hips and follows them like an unwanted friend. Deqo has long been aware of how the soft flesh of her body is a liability; the first word she remembers learning is 'shame'. The only education she received from the women in the camp concerned how to keep this shame at bay: don't sit with your legs open, don't touch your privates, don't play with boys. The avoidance of shame seems to be at the heart of everything in a girl's life. There is at least a chance in this women-only cell to put shame aside for a while and flop down without wondering who might see her legs or who might grab her while she sleeps. She finds a space near an elderly destitute woman on a rush mat.

Copyright © 2013 by Nadifa Mohamed

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