Review: Nightfall in Mogadishu

Nightfall in MogadishuThis comprises the fourth book I’ve been requested to review in the past few months. The author sent a lovely request to review both of her books, and based on details about her journalistic background on her author’s website, I had high hopes for a well-crafted story. Her blurb gives a particularly focused reference on the time and location that form the genesis for the action in the book:

We’ve seen Black Hawk Down, the movie on the horrendous firefight between American Army Rangers and Somali gunmen. But do we know what caused the Somali government to collapse, and why the U.S. had to send in troops? For the first time, the story of Somalia is told in the novel, Nightfall in Mogadishu. The page-turning thriller portrays the pressures that build up to the final explosion. Pieces of history are cleverly woven into the fabric of the story: the Somali nomadic lifestyle, colonial occupation and independence, and the rise of its dictator, Siad Barre, whose tactic of “divide and conquer” pushes already fractious clans into headlong collision. The story begins with the murder of a high ranking U.N representative in Somalia. Susan Chen, an undercover CIA agent is sent to replace him. Her job is to ferret out the murderer and stop the terror he wreaks on the expatriate community. With the help of two Somalis she befriends, she unravels the conspiracy behind a series of murders of foreign aid workers. But the ultimate goal of her assignment, saving the government from collapse, proves to be an impossible mission.

The sense of place Li captures–dusty, third-world squalor and unbearable heat–speaks strongly of the author’s personal experience in the country. In many ways these descriptions read like a time-shifted travel guide with journalistic overtones. The individual characters are also sharply drawn, playing with stereotypes and rebounding off the expectations those establish within their counterparts. Certainly, having been raised within overseas diplomatic communities, the insularity Li creates separating the ex-pats from the local population was spot-on. Even the intensity of the relationships and the undercurrent of uncertainty are faithfully represented.

For those strengths, though, there was something a little halting in the writing. Where the story should have been gripping–it is, after all, a spy novel–it dragged a little. I have to assume this is partly because this is Li’s first novel, and she’s not quite come to terms with her unique voice. She’s still a little too much the journalist striving for distance from her subject, and hence distances her reading audience from a unique and interesting speculative insider view/summary of the disintegration of Somalia. I loved her “summary” paragraph for its neat summation of the vast number of column inches dedicated to what went wrong in that country:

The Somalis had tried to live together as a nation and failed. Now they’d lost everything–the old way of life and the new. What pain and suffering the people would have to endure before they could rebuild a civilization. Out of the ashes a phoenix had yet to rise. The rest of the world had also lost. In trying to develop the country, either out of self-interest or altruism, the donors of assistance had cultivated a culture of dependence and lulled the ruling regime into believing that somebody in the world would always prop it up, no matter how rotten its house had become. The repairs had been cosmetic, the donors had known that deep down in their hearts, but for reasons of their own, they’d turned a blind eye until it was too late. In the end, they hadn’t helped but merely added to the severity of the disaster. They, too, had lost.

But it also underlines the didactic flaw of her narrative…

Nonetheless, for those who are interested in an insider’s view of complicated recent history, this novel does a fantastic job of drawing broad outlines of the players in the game and introducing an element of real understanding to a convoluted situation. For those who appreciate strong female characters, too, there is a lot to love about Susan Chen, the protagonist, a recent CIA trainee testing herself in her first assignment. I had to chuckle that Li was able to turn the “they sent a woman to do a man’s job” into a subtle, ongoing joke that truly upset gender bias and expectation. For both of these reasons I can happily recommend this book–and am really looking forward to reading her next book, to see whether this first experience has built on Li’s strengths as an author.

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