Nadifa Mohamed’s “Filsan” is the fifth story in Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
“Filsan” is an excerpt from Nadifa Mohamed’s forthcoming novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls. You’ll perhaps notice it’s been a while since I reviewed a piece from Granta 123; it’s because I got bogged down here. I just couldn’t get through the first few pages of this story. I think my main problem is the attention to minute details in a mundane structure — including long lists that end the first two paragraphs — as we watch Filsan wake up and start her day. Each time I’d start this piece I’d put the issue right back down. Perhaps I should have just skipped it because, once I finally did finish it, I was no longer annoyed just with the “kitchen sink” writing but also with the “kitchen sink” portrayal of a woman in the military.
Filsan is a young female soldier from Mogadishu who has been moved to suppress a rebellion in northern Somalia. When the story begins, she’s deeply disappointed that despite her time in the military, she’s still performing mundane secretarial tasks. That’s about to change:
We have solid intelligence that NFM rebels are fed, watered and sheltered in these villages. Ever since the secessionists moved their headquarters from London to Ethiopia they have been bolder and bolder and it is places like these that allow them to think they stand a chance in hell of defeating us.
The commanding officer says it is Filsan’s particular job to “communicate our anger and ensure that it is understood that further punitive measures can and will be enforced.” On the way to the first place that is “barely even a village” Filsan has her period and is slumped over with cramps. She’s relieved when she gets a gun because “a gun makes a soldier even out of a woman.”
At the village, she apparently suffers from hystrionics and kills the three village elders, barely realizing she’s done it. On the way out, the male soldiers patronizingly tell her she did good. She gets home and is asked out by another officer. Etc.
The worst thing is that it appears we readers are supposed to join in the patronizing, feeling at once sorry for the way she is discriminated against and for the situation she finds herself in when she gets in the action — “she did good, considering.”
All of this in a few pages. I have issues with the story in general, but besides that I found the whole thing rather lifeless. Filsan felt more like a polemic than a character, and I suspect I’ll feel this way about many many many of the stories in this issue.
Interesting thoughts. Overall the issue was much less exciting than the 2003 version. That one, if I recall correctly, seemed to focus on sentence-level writing quality as one of its main criteria; this one does not. There are some good pieces in there, but too many extracts that don’t stand well on their own.