Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday
This action novel is a page-turner from beginning to end. The story is set in near-contemporary Mogadishu, Somalia, where the armed Islamist movement called Al-Shabaab conducts terrorist attacks on civilian targets, while African peacekeeping troops and U.S. anti-terrorism units try to contain and defeat it. The novel toggles back and forth between several time-periods. The back-and-forth is a bit artificial and confusing, but overall it works well and keeps readers at the edge of their seats.
In the beginning of the novel, Abdi, the teenage protagonist, is forced to stand by as his slightly older brother Dahir is abducted from their school by Al-Shabaab and disappears from the family’s life. Abdi himself is violently abducted by the head of a shady U.S. government operation, who, after having confined and savagely beaten Abdi for several days, forces him into going undercover with Al-Shabaab if he wants his family to survive and obtain resettlement abroad. Abdi finds that his brother has become a commander and committed convert to Al-Shabaab’s cause. Continuously pressured and threatened by the Americans, Abdi tries to gain the confidence of Al-Shabaab’s leadership. Sent on a “mission,” he finds himself forced to kill to protect his fellow recruits. After escaping to Kenya’s Sangui City (a fictional mix of Nairobi and Mombasa, on the ocean), Abdi gradually builds relationships of trust with UN worker Sam and some of the young women of the shelter. The fastest-paced part of the narrative begins when they all find themselves trapped in an Al-Shabaab attack on the mall that is the site of their long-awaited group outing – reminiscent of the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall of 21 September 2013.
Overall, this is an engaging, fast-paced, and quite violent narrative, in which abhorrence of extreme Islamist ideology and violence of any kind, as well as loyalty to family and friends, win the day. There is perhaps more violence than what is, to the mind of this reviewer, necessary to the plot. Especially towards the end, the twists and turns of the plot are increasingly unlikely, although they allow for a welcome happy end. Except perhaps for Abdi, who nevertheless also killed people, there are very few positive Somali characters in the book. Most Somali characters are perpetrators or victims, with even Abdi’s mother and grandmother portrayed as feisty, somewhat pugnacious women.
In terms of language, the author often uses “The Boys” instead of the name of Al-Shabaab. While the novel otherwise does not reduce Al-Shabaab to a young men’s gang, this reviewer found that translation unfortunate and somewhat misleading. Finally, in contrast to what the author claims (p. 450), Somali spelling has been officially standardized since 1974. The mix of spellings used here (sometimes using the “x” and “c” and the double vowels and consonants of the official orthography and sometimes not) will probably only bother readers with knowledge of the Somali language; it is nevertheless a small and unnecessary flaw.
Overall, however, this book, which uses Somalia and Kenya as a realistic, even if violent, setting is a wonderful read; it comes highly recommended. Natalie C. Anderson is the author of one earlier well-received novel for young adult readers, namely City of Saints and Thieves (Penguin, 2017), also set in the fictional Sangui City (Kenya). Before taking up writing full-time, she worked for more than a decade on refugee relief both at the NGO and the UN level.
Reviewed by Lidwien Kapteijns, Ph.D. Wellesley College
Published in Africa Access Review (May 29, 2019)
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