In Secrets, Somalian author Nuruddin Farah has conjured a densely woven tale of betrayal, hidden agendas, and tangled relationships that is both a deeply personal story in and of itself and emblematic of the greater problems that continue to tear his country apart today. As a boy, young Kalaman used to creep into the bed of his childhood playmate, Sholoongo, and the two would engage in secret games of sexual discovery. A quarter of a century later, Kalaman is a businessman in Mogadishu on the eve of Somalia's civil war when Sholoongo arrives unexpectedly from America, bringing with her the reminder of an old, half-forgotten promise.
The secrets start early in Farah's novel: As a child, Kalaman questions even the origins of his own name, wondering if his unusual appellation in a world of Mohammeds and Abdous is an indication that he is not, after all, his father's child. Then there is the question of why his mother seems to dislike Sholoongo, whom his grandfather, Nonno, describes as "a duugan, that is to say, a baby to be buried." If Kalaman's origins are slightly murky, Sholoongo's are mired in mystery. One version has her abandoned by her mother and raised by lions. Whatever the truth of the girl's history, it is generally agreed by most people in Kalaman's village that she is probably a witch, and therefore trouble. Certainly Kalaman's mother, Damac, mistrusts her, believing her to have "animal powers" and designs on her son. Farah reveals all this in a tantalizing introductory chapter before fast-forwarding 25 years to Mogadishu in the early 1990s, one week before the official outbreak of civil war; Kalaman, now a successful young businessman, comes home to find the long-lost Sholoongo waiting for him in his apartment. Kalaman's first reaction to his old playmate's reappearance is fear: "There was no way of knowing what her visit might bring forth, what mysteries it might unravel, what manner of disastrous debates it might generate.... In other words, there was no telling how much havoc Sholoongo would cause." As it turns out, a great deal.
From here on out, Farah caroms between past and present, alternating chapters narrated by Kalaman, Damac, Sholoongo, and Nonno as he inexorably unravels a skein of lies, secrets, and corruption. As Kalaman learns the truth about himself and his family, that family's destruction mirrors Somalia's hellish descent into sectarian violence and long-simmering tribal hatreds. Politics, passion, sorcery, and myth are just a few of the threads Nuruddin Farah spins into mesmerizing whole cloth in this remarkable, award-winning novel out of Africa. --Alix Wilber