2009 Historical Fiction Orange Prize

Black Mamba Boy – Nadifa Mohamed

 Long listed for 2010 Orange Prize

Last week the long list for the Orange prize 2010 was announced and I discovered that I already owned a copy of this one. I started to read it straight away, keen to discover why it made the list. 

Black Mamba Boy begins in 1930s Somalia and follows ten-year-old Jama as he sets out on a dangerous journey across the desert, searching for his father. He travels through war-torn Eritrea and Sudan, to Egypt, Palestine and finally to Britain.

The plot is based on the true story of what happened to the author’s father; it is amazing to think that one person endured so much hardship at such a young age. The terrible things that this little boy saw and had to endure to stay alive are almost beyond belief.

Unfortunately this book didn’t grab me in the way that it should. In the beginning too many characters were introduced, so I struggled to remember who was who. I failed to connect to Jama and so I felt distanced from the events he was witnessing. It could be that he was forced to grow up quickly, but I also didn’t feel that the book realistically portrayed a child’s point of view – he seemed to understand everything that was going on around him, having an adult’s comprehension of the world.

The book also contained long descriptions, which led my mind to wander away from the page.

Sand scratched in his eyes and blurred the path as it danced around the desert in a frenetic whirling ballet. Jama’s sarong was nearly pulled off by the mischievous sand jinns hiding within the storm. Jama covered his face with his sarong and managed to make slow progress like that. The dust storm had turned the sun a bright orange, until unashamed at its obscured power it crept away below the horizon to be replaced by an anaemic fragile-looking moon. Jama stumbled across the hill, kicking rocks away with bare feet, giant thorns poking and prodding dangerously. Desert animals scurried around looking for refuge, their small furry paws scrambling over Jama’s sand-swathed feet. Exhausted, Jama stopped and collapsed on the sand.

There is nothing wrong with these descriptions by themselves, but when you have to wade through pages and pages of them with no text to break things up it gets tedious. The repitition of the word Jama also began to irritate me.

Overall, I’m afraid I was disappointed by this book. I hope I’ll have more succes with my next Orange read.

There are very few reviews for this book out there at the moment, but it does seem to divide people. I think this is another Marmite book!

an amazing ride through the dusty, noisy but bustling streets of the some of the most important cities of North East Africa in the ’30’s. Lotus Reads

There are, however, moments when Black Mamba Boy stumbles…… Follow The Thread

30 replies on “Black Mamba Boy – Nadifa Mohamed”

This wasn’t one that I identified as especially wanting to read and not sure I’ll bother now.

I’ve read 2 more of the longlist since it was published and they both packed a punch This is how and Hearts and Minds. The latter in fact was tremendous. Do seek them both out!

Interesting review Jackie, I have this one on the TBR and will probably be reading it in the next week or so.

I was interested in you saying “unfortunately this book didn’t grab me in the way that it should” almost as if any book owes you that and I wondered what you think any book should do to grab you, it intrigues me as its a question I often ask myself. Do you have expectations before you start any book and do they change for genre or what you might be expecting?

Simon, Interesting question! I think what I mean is that the premise of the book really appealed to me. The story was fantastic, so in theory I should have loved it. I don’t think any book owes me anything, but I do have certain expectations before I start a book and will be disappointed if they aren’t met.
This was described as appealing to fans of Half of a Yellow Sun, but that is only true in the sense that you’ll like this if you enjoy books set in Africa, not because they are similar in writing style.

I’ll be reading this for my Orange longlist challenge, but am not really looking forward to it. Even before I read your review I had a feeling that it was going to be a worthy book rather than a gripping or beautiful one. I also feel a little wary of novels like this, which are autobiographical in content – apparently it’s based on the childhood of the author’s father, and partly written from tapes he recorded of his experiences.

Not sure this one is for me, but thanks for the review. I do hope to read more books up for awards soon. And thanks for the definition of marmite! Definitely a new word to me!

Can it really be time for the Orange long list again?
The only book I have read on the list is Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and I really did enjoy that. I thought of doing the long list challenge but then I also have so many books to read on my TBR pile so I think I will try to reduce that instead of adding to it.
Thanks for the review, Jackie. Black Mamba Boy didn’t really appeal to me so thanks for the confirmation, I’ll give this one a miss.

Kim, Sorry to have not responded to your comment until now – don’t know how I missed it.

I still haven’t managed to complete the Orange long list. I think I only have three books left to go. I really need to finish them soon. I hope you enjoy your Orange reading.

Alyce, Sorry to have not responded to your comment until now – I must have missed it 🙁

I don’t mind occasional long descriptions, but this book was long long description and so I lost interest 🙁

It is a shame that you didn’t love this one – I thought that it was pretty brilliant actually and its strength was mostly derived from the descriptive nature of the prose – I found this especially true in the opening chapter – I could almost feel the heat and dust in my face. I wonder if the main reason that this book divides people to such an extent is its subject matter? The events of the story are pretty awful, and when I read it I took quite a few breaks as I was going along because I was quite upset – but then that is also true of books like the Kite Runner and A Fine Balance – and is testimony to their power really.
The point about Jama’s “voice” not being consistent with his age is an interesting one – I wondered about this as I was reading and I guess that my conclusion was two fold. Firstly it is clear from the story that he was forced to grow up at a speed and under conditions which it is impossible for me torelate to and secondly the book is a sort of corrective to the euro-centric view of the second world war which has dominated english literature – so looked at that in that context it makes rather more sense.
Anyway, another interesting review, thanks for sharing!

Hannah, I agree that the descriptions were very vivid, but I found them to be too long and that led me to lose interest in the book. I don’t think the subject matter is to blame for the divide in opinion on this book (I loved The Kite Runner and A Fine Balance is my favourite book). I think this book lacked an emotional connect to the terrible events and that is the reason for the divide in opinion. Some people are happy to read long descriptions of the surroundings, but others (like me) need an emotional connection to the characters.

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