Book Review: Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah

“Death in Somalia seldom bothers to announce its arrival. In fact, death calls with the arrogance of a guest confident on receiving a warm welcome at any time, no question asked.”
― Nuruddin Farah, Hiding in Plain Sight

The Good
Hiding in Plain Sight was the first book  I read by the author,  Nuruddin Farah. I have to admit, I was not disappointed by the prose or the easy flow of his narrative. The story is about a Somali family whose lives are thrown into turmoil after the death of their loved one. Aar is working with the UN in Somali and everything seems okay until he receives a threat just after finishing his final assignment. The threat is a single misspelled word, DETH! At first, Aar takes it lightly but eventually decides to go back to Nairobi where his two teenage children live. However, on his way to the airport, he takes a detour that  leads to his death at the hands of the Al Shabaab militant group. Bella is Aar’s half sister who lives in Rome where she works as a photographer. She is described as a free spirit with no responsibilities and who travels the world and has three lovers in different countries. However, after Aar’s death she decides to abandon her carefree life and fly to Nairobi to take care of her nephew and niece.

“In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement.”
― Abraham Lincoln

Her resolve although noble is met by obstacles when Aar’s absentee wife, Valerie,  suddenly turns up after ten years. The story mainly revolves around this conflict as the two women both try to assert their position in the children’s lives.

Nuruddin’s masterfully tackles sensitive issues in his book. For instance; Valerie and Padmini(two  main characters) are lesbian lovers in Africa, a continent which mostly shuns homosexuality. He also tells a story about grief and love in a way that will engage readers and leave them wondering how the family will survive this dark period of their lives. The issue of ethnicity also comes up although subtly. The ethnic profiling of Kenyan Somalis is mentioned and readers can get to understand how refugees feel about being in a foreign country. The ethnic profiling is both ways though as it comes through the characters who at times get into stereotypes about Kenyans and Somalis also.

The story is filled with  themes of family, ethnic stereotypes, religion, terrorism, death, grief and even homosexuality.


The Not so Good
The setting of the book is Nairobi, Kenya. I was born in Nairobi and I have been in this city for the past 31 years but I could not recognize the Nairobi that the Nuruddin describes in his story.

The book has a number of inaccuracies about Kenya. One that really got to me is the part where the author mentions that Kenya lost a million and a half people in post-election violence. The period that he refers to is one of the darkest periods in Kenya but to say that a million people died during that period is untrue and seems like an unnecessary exaggeration that adds nothing to the story. The many reminders about how dangerous Nairobi is; also irked me and became a bit confusing. For instance; the protagonists dislikes Kenya and Nairobi so much because of how ‘dangerous’ the place is but then instead of whisking the kids away to somewhere safer like Mogadishu(as she suggests) or Europe, she settles for a life in this volatile country.

I wish Nuruddin Farah would have tried to be accurate about the country and city that he chose as the setting for his book. This kind of ‘bias’ reminds me of Aryan Hirsi who also wrote the book Infidel partly set in Nairobi that also had the same sort of inaccuracies, a sort of bias that left me baffled.

NairobiNairobi at Night(from google images)

In this book, the author also details every single thing no matter how mundane. For instance, he will list all ingredients of a dish, all items on a shopping list. Photography is also explained in such detail that it almost turned the story into a tutorial. The details slowed down the pace of the book and I kept waiting for something meaningful to happen.

Despite my issue with Nuruddin Farah’s portrayal of Kenya and the slow pace, I recommend this book and give it three out of five stars. I also look forward to reading more books by this widely acclaimed author.