Jama is a young boy growing up in East Africa in the 1930s. His father left when he was a baby to earn more money elsewhere, so Jama lives with his mother in Aden, Yemen. He feels an outcast and is often in trouble. His mother works hard and Jama spends his days getting into mischief. Afer his mother's death he goes to live with family in his homeland of Somalia and runs away to find his father, travelling all across the region, even though he is just a child for much of it. Overall, you are reading about approximately twelve years of someone's life.
Jama is an engaging character who you easily warm to; he is cheeky, mischievous but full of street smarts, but at the same time naive, intent on following his dreams, and undaunted by the distance he needs to travel to find his father. For our part, we share Jama's journey into manhood both literally and metaphorically as he experiences World War II, working for the Italians and then the British, risking his neck for a war that has nothing to do with his world. Of the supporting characters, only Jama's friend Shidane stands out, the only boy more street smart and cheekier than Jama. Don't think of these boys as good people, they are trying to survive, and they will steal and lie to get what they need which can be a bit uncomfortable for us more privaleged readers.
As interesting and engaging as this story was I do have a few niggles. I did find the book hard to relate to at times, the terrible poverty and hunger is something I have been fortunate enough to not experience, but some of the feats that Jama performs during his journey, such as walking for days in the African heat with little water or food, seem beyond human endurance and a bit far fetched. The coincidences also seemed too much for me, characters we meet reappear at other points in the book in a different country, whilst the ex-pat Somali community maybe close-knit, I thought some of these coincidences a bit too much of a long shot. However, the real kicker for me was the ending. The book virtually just stopped, with very little conclusion and several loose ends. It wasn't so much that I felt I wanted it to continue, more so that I felt a bit cheated that Jama's story hadn't been rounded off a bit neater.
This is Nadifa Mohamed's first novel; she was born in Somalia but did much of her growing up in the UK. The book is inspired by her father and his friends, who did the long journeys across parts of Africa during the war years, and had first hand experience of the Italian fascists. I enjoyed her writing style, once I had got used to Jama as a character I got into the book and overall really enjoyed it. She can be concisely descriptive, which is how I like it - enough so that you can visualise the scenery and atmosphere, but not so that you get frustrated that the story is being neglected. I would be interested to read any of her future work.
I would recommend this book to readers interested in the region, and the impact of World War II. As I have mentioned, it is a `journey' book, so those who like neat conclusions or fast paced action may not find it is what they are looking for.