Rebuilding A Broken Family 'In Plain Sight'

Nov 2, 2014
Originally published on November 3, 2014 6:23 pm

When Nuruddin Farah was a young writer, he published a satirical novel about Somalia, his native country. On his way home from a trip he called his brother, to ask for a ride from the airport. His brother told him not to come home: His novel had caused a stir, and authorities were looking for him.

For the next 22 years Farah lived in exile all over the world, chronicling the lives of Somalis from abroad. Even now, he resides mainly in Cape Town when he isn't teaching at a small college outside New York City. His latest book is called Hiding in Plain Sight, and it's well worth your looking for it. This novel — Farah's 12th — takes us deep into the domestic life of a sophisticated African family, with great emotional effect.

The book opens with a Somali UN official — a man named Aar, father of two, finishing up his assignment at the UN headquarters in Mogadishu. A terrorist, possibly someone from his own staff, has been sending him threatening notes.

Aar finally caves in and decides to leave Somalia, but not before making one more trip to his office to pack some papers and memorabilia. Just before he heads out the door for the airport, someone sets off a bomb, and he dies in the explosion.

Next we meet the dead man's half-sister, a glamorous photographer named Bella. She lives a life of sophisticated pleasures, in Rome and other places, but her brother's demise sinks her deeply in grief. Since his wife has long-ago abandoned the kids, Bella puts Rome and lovers behind her, packs her bags, and cameras, and heads to Nairobi to pick up her niece and nephew at boarding school. In Farah's words, she feels "she is answering a call to serve, almost a religious calling."

For the rest of the novel, Bella tries to reconfigure the family, dedicating herself to the children. But then their flamboyant mother shows up, with her female lover in tow, setting off a multi-layered battle over the kids that plays out to the very last page. Though the main story seems overt, Farah's execution of it remains quite subtle. Each of the kids, a teenage brother and sister, become starkly real in their intelligence, ingenuity, anger, and grief. Even their outrageous mother (and her selfish choices) seems credible.

This brilliant and deeply feeling novel of manners takes place in modern urban Africa, with its guarded gated communities, gourmet take-out, and highfalutin' lawyers on both sides of the custody battle. But the questions, the tension at the heart of it is global: Will the kids be all right? And can Bella make a good new life for herself as the head of a family?

This family, our families, Africa and Europe and America, have never seemed closer in the way we live now — and this engaging novel, from its explosive beginning to its complex yet uplifting last scenes, shows us why.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Nuruddin Farah was a young writer he published a satirical novel about Somalia, his home country. On his way home from a trip he called his brother to ask for a ride from the airport. His brother told him to stay away; the novel had caused a stir and he was in trouble in Somalia. For more than 20 years, Farah lived in exile. He traveled widely and chronicled the lives of Somalis from abroad. His exile ended in the mid-'90s but the experience still informs his writing. Farrah's latest novel is called "Hiding In Plain Sight." Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The book opens with a Somali UN official, a father of two finishing up his assignment at the UN headquarters in Mogadishu. But just before he leaves his office, a terrorist blows up the building and he dies in the attack. From there, we go to Rome where we meet the dead man's half-sister, a glamorous photographer named Bella. She's sunk deep into grief by her brother's sudden demise, but since his wife had long ago abandoned the kids, Bella packs her bags and cameras and heads to Nairobi to pick up her niece and nephew at boarding school.

For the rest of the novel Bella tries to reconfigure the family, giving up her life in Rome and presumably, her career and her lovers to dedicate herself to the children, but when their mother shows up - her female lover in tow - a battle over the kids, both overt and subtle begins and plays out until the very last page.

This story takes place in modern urban Africa with its guarded gated communities, laptops, desktops, new cars, gourmet takeout and highfalutin' lawyers on both sides of a custody battle. Will the kids be all right? A lot of tension rises from that question. And Bella - will she make a good new life for herself as the head of a family? It's a brilliant novel of manners in which these questions arise. This family, our families - Africa and America have never seemed closer in the way we live now.

CORNISH: That was Alan Cheuse with a review of "Hiding In Plain Sight" by Nuruddin Farah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.