North of Dawn

I’m almost done listening to Nuruddin Farah’s North of Dawn. I don’t read much contemporary fiction, to be honest. Maybe it’s not escapist enough for me; if I’m going to sit down with a novel, it should at least take me a hundred years into the past, if not to another world entirely.

But I happened on a review of Farah’s latest book in the New York Times Book Review, and I was intrigued. It’s set in Norway (I have a bad crush on all things Scandinavia right now), and it’s about a Somali couple who welcome to Oslo the widow and stepchildren of their dead son, who died as a suicide bomber for an extremist Islamic group. I’ve worked a little bit with refugee populations in my hometown, and I’ve been meaning for a couple of years to learn more about Islamic cultures, so I thought I’d give North of Dawn a go.

The first thing that stood out to me actually was Farah’s use of a third-person omniscient point of view. Even within the same scene, he dips in and out of the characters’ thoughts and perspectives, which has been a no-no in English literature for the better part of a hundred years. Once I got used to Farah’s technique, there really isn’t any problem with third-person omniscient, and often I enjoyed being able to know what multiple characters thought about the same conversation or event.

I’m curious to know if Farah is tapping into a broader movement that’s challenging the fiction rules established by the mid-century New Critics. In a recent acquisitions committee meeting at work, several of my colleagues were discussing the new trend of killing major POV characters, even early in a book. Hugh Howey’s Wool came up—admittedly self-published, so he doesn’t have to play by the “rules”—in which apparently every major character is dead by the end of Act I, and the rest of the book continues with up-to-that-point minor characters.

The other aspect of Farah’s North of Dawn that took some getting used to is how forthright the characters are. Even the twelve- and fourteen-year-old characters say exactly what they think and have insightful analyses about African/European relations and the motivation and impetus for terrorism. On the one hand, I think it’s understood that Farah is creating archetypes: in a way that isn’t fair to people in real life, he’s asking his older Somali-Norwegian couple to stand in for well-established, secular Somali immigrants on a broader scale, in the same way that Johan and Birgitta stand in for liberal white Norwegians in general. On the other hand, my culture (see: “Michigan nice”) strongly discourages open disagreement and criticism, so I’m assuming there are also very real cultural differences between me as a reader and Farah’s characters.

Ultimately, the thing about North of Dawn that resonates most strongly with me is the comparison Farah draws between extreme Islamist terrorists and nativist Norwegian neo-Nazis, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 terror attack in Norway, which is a major plot point in Farah’s novel. He draws attention to the way we treat terrorists differently depending on their race and religion, and how the victims are the everyday people caught between these two extremes.

The way Farah shows the intersecting relationships between all the characters is also eye-opening. The terrorists aren’t “over there”: the main characters’ son was a suicide bomber, even though his parents are secular Somalis, well integrated in Norwegian society. Their daughter-in-law (the widow) is fundamentalist and associates with radical imams, but her children are trying to distance themselves from her values while still retaining their faith. There are no simple answers, and us-versus-them dissolves as Farah explores the complex human networks that all the characters share.

I’m looking forward to wrapping up the last couple hours of the audiobook soon.

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