Knots: A Woman’s Return to Somalia

As a teacher who works with refugees and immigrants, primarily from Burma and Somalia, I try to read up on historical and current events of my students’ respective countries. One of the challenges is finding novels written by Somali authors either about Somalis in Somalia or in their new lands.  I researched a few books to see what I could get at the library and was pleasantly surprised with a few listings. The first one I’ve read is Nuruddin Farah’s Knots. He appears to be a prolific author with Somalia-centric stories especially regarding the diaspora. This one centers on Cambara, a Somali-born woman and aspiring actress/writer who grew up first in Somalia and later, Canada, who then returns to Mogadishu to find herself.

The worst thing about this book is that the writing style takes a while to become used to. Much of the first chapter packs so much detail and information into each sentence that it was difficult to have any sustained reading. It very nearly forced me to stop reading the book entirely and return this one and his other one to the library ASAP. However, my desire to see if it could improve won out and I continued reading. Thankfully, not every sentence and certainly not every chapter is so information-dense.

The main and supporting characters start out as nearly entirely unlikeable, the whole lot of them. They are flawed people in bad situations, which definitely make their flaws more glaring. The more I read it, the more I wanted to understand how each character became the person with those particular flaws.

Farah does give glimpses here and there of character development through Cambara’s voice and memories and her suppositions of why things have happened – but little perspective from anyone else. The novel is written in first-person present-tense, so everything is shown as it is happening or Cambara remembering something because of what is currently happening. Ultimately, I found the characters to be overwhelmingly petty, selfish, and cruel. The background information gave insight but didn’t help the characters become likeable.

There is constant tension, especially between Cambara and her cousin, Zaak. They clearly despise each other but there are some awkward moments where it definitely seems like their mutual animosity is much muddier as the story goes on. The way they treat each other embroils other characters into their stories – and neither one is able to take responsibility for worsening any situation they are in.

This story has a lot of promise in it: a woman from the Somali diaspora seeks to heal personal wounds by returning to her homeland to daringly recover family property from warlords. The few glimpses into what her wounds are, her motivations, and the desire to recover from them are good, but too far and few between. Everything is lost in the long-winded, dense sentences and the character flaws that get in the way of plot development. At least the dialogue tends to be brief and illuminating – it’s unfortunate that even the dialogue is broken up by impossible sentences. Cambara’s lengthy internal reactions during dialogue will lose plenty of readers.

In all honesty, it was difficult to think of something I liked best about the novel. Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the story is that Cambara forges much-needed relationships with other women in her time of need. These relationships are the reason for whatever happiness befalls Cambara, if the reader can successfully slog through every other part of the book. This is a reading I’d recommend to people only if they seek a challenging, lofty novel. It is definitely not a light book to read in an afternoon.