By Nuruddin Farah

240 ratings - 3.38* vote

A gripping new novel from today's "most important African novelist". (The New York Times Review of Books) A dozen years after his last visit, Jeebleh returns to his beloved Mogadiscio to see old friends. He is accompanied by his son-in-law, Malik, a journalist intent on covering the region's ongoing turmoil. What greets them at first is not the chaos Jeebleh remembers, how A gripping new novel from today's "most important African novelist". (The New York Times Review of

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Book details

Hardcover, 400 pages
September 1st 2011 by Riverhead Books
Original Title
1594488169 (ISBN13: 9781594488160)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Mark Staniforth

High-octane, high-seas shanties; eye-patches and cutlasses; bounties and buccaneers: all are conspicuous by their absence in 'Crossbones', Nuruddin Farah's gruelling yet gripping account of life in modern-day Somalia - it's piracy, but not as we know it.
Farah is ideally placed to examine the extraordinary strife afflicting his homeland, which he talks about in an excellent recent Guardian interview. 'Crossbones' - its piratical reference deployed with a delicious hint of irony - is the third and final book of his latest trilogy, though it stands alone. Where 'Links' (2006) explored the post-US invasion rise of Mogadishu's clan warlords, and 'Knots' (2007) concentrated on its virtual takeover by the hardline Islamist group Shaabab, 'Crossbones' is set in the vacuum of power that followed: Ethiopia is preparing to invade, Shaabab are scurrying for cover, and a murderous lawlessness reigns. 'Let's face it,' explains one of a seemingly limitless number of shady go-betweens, 'I, too, like so many others, profited from the turmoil. Turbulence upsets things, sends the dregs to the top. We are enjoying the turmoil and are unfettered by tax laws, a parliament issuing decrees, a dictator passing edicts, a government declaring draconian measures: the ideal situation for growth of capital.'
'Crossbones' charts the respective journeys of Jeebleh, his son-in-law Malik, and Malik's brother, Ahl, all American citizens, who return to their homeland ostensibly in order to search for Ahl's adopted son Taxliil, who has disappeared along with a group of other young Somali-American men from their homes in Minnesota, said to have been recruited by Shaabab with the lure of martyrdom.
While Jeebleh and Malik, a ambitious and intrepid war correspondent who intends to use the trip to file state-of-the-nation features, head to the chaotic capital, Ahl bases himself in semi-automous Puntland, where relative peace reigns, but so-called piracy proliferates.
Farah travelled extensively in Somalia to research his novel, and it shows. He has described his quest to chronicle the gradual breakdown of his homeland as a desire 'to keep my country alive by writing about it.'
'Crossbones' often feels as much Farah's personal interpretation of his nation as it does out-and-out fiction: while the search for Taxliil always underpins the novel, the plot unfurls slowly, often through long conversational pieces and the author's own exposition. This is not intended as a negative, far from it - though those who prefer their pirate adventures to do exactly what they say on the tin perhaps ought to look away now (Elmore Leonard's cliche-laden 'Djibouti' would be a good place to start).
What emerges out of a tough, complicated but rewarding read is a vivid portrait of a country clinging onto its nationhood by its fingertips, where chronic paranoia places journalists at the top of innumberable hit-lists, and where religious radicalization is rife among the young, often inadvertently perpetuated by the clumsy actions of the west.
But what the Somalis whom Malik and Ahl encounter in their search for Taxliil seem most eager to shatter is the myth that Puntland's pirates live lives of luxury, funded by multi-million dollar off-shore ransoms. The reality, they insist, is entirely different: its stocks decimated by illegal incursions into their waters, Somalia's northern fishing fleet had little option but to pursue foreign ships for a form of insurance: from it grew a headline-grabbing industry driven by bankers and shipping magnates across the world, who divide the so-called ransom between themselves, leaving next to nothing for the kid in the skiff with the AK47 slung awkwardly round his neck, except the vilification of the watching world, and the ridiculous re-drawing of him as some sort of modern-day Blackbeard.
There's no glamour here. Farah's writing is hard and unflinching, shorn of all unnecessary accoutrements, and while his love for his country shines through, so too does his pessimism for its future:

'While there is always a beginning to an argument, there is never an end, never a logical conclusion to their disputation. Somalis are in a rich form when holding forth; they are in their element when they are spilling blood.'

For piratical stereotypes, direct yourself to Elmore Leonard. For a fascinating and exhaustive insight into what is really happening in the Horn of Africa, look beyond the news headlines and find a way to Nuruddin Farah.


I was excited to meet Jeebleh and Cambara again from the first two books of the "Past Imperfect" trilogy. And this is the best of the three, for me. A really engrossing story, and an enlightening representation of a Somalia best known for its piracy. And a really good ending (that is not a resolution).

The narrator goes out of his way not only to educate us about the origins of that piracy, but even to embed reading recommendations within the text. Which might seem a bit preachy--but it's eye-opening stuff. Fact from my secondary reading: international poaching of fish from Somalia's rich and extensive coastal waters, which is permitted by those gunboats sent to stop the pirates, takes away more protein than is provided by international food aid. The origin of the piracy was attempts by fishermen to protect their coastal fishing grounds.

Amy Young

2.5 stars. And that’s the that on that.


I was really engrossed in this novel at the beginning. It starts in medias res, and it also begins following the perspective of peripheral rather than central characters. It also plunges you into the streets of Mogadishu. In an odd way, though it's following a would-be suicide bomber and an upper-class woman he meets on the street, it feels a lot like Mrs. Dalloway, which reminded me of Teju Cole's Twitter essay, "Seven Short Stories about Drones." Like Cole's essay, this novel demonstrates in its plot and form that it is impossible to continue the modernist novel, focused on individual consciousness, personal experience, and the unfolding connectivity of the urban landscape, in the context of terrorism and civil war. Individual consciousness is subject to brainwashing or trauma; personal experience is eclipsed by a perpetual state of emergency, and the urban landscape connects people through mobs rather than maps, constantly ruptured by explosions and collisions. When Farah kills two of the central characters from the first third of the novel, you realize how far afield from Mrs. Dalloway (not merely geographically but geopolitically) we are.

In that, the novel is very powerful. Additionally, as a meditation on age and youth. Three of the most compelling characters--Jeebleh, his boyhood friend Bile, and then the old man who YoungThing stumbles across when he tries to occupy his house for Shabab--are all elderly men who have witnessed generations of upheaval and bloodshed under different banners in Somalia. Radical Islam is only the latest in a series of regimes. The novel comes to center around two middle-aged men, Malik and Ahl, raised away from Somalia who are coming back to the country to make sense of its present and future. Somalia's future, however, seems potentially grim because the terrorist groups exploit the illusions of youth, so the boys we meet in the novel (YoungThing, Taxlil, Ahmed who has changed his name to a nom de guerre) have been radicalized and seem crucially warped by their manipulability and volatility. Youth, instead of meaning hope, comes to represent a threat of explosiveness that can be harnessed to actual explosions. This volatility, counterposed with the meditative melancholy and bodily deterioration of Jeebleh and Bile, is really fascinating, and I imagine that this is the fruition of a trilogy that follows these men through their earlier years into old age.

The book becomes very exposition-y, which lost me a bit. There's a lot of rehearsal of Somalian history and political context, which at once seems absolutely necessary and also seems to require putting particularly compelling formal strategies and character perspectives into abeyance. Farah uses the journalistic interview to excuse these excurses, but they hurt the narrative momentum for me. Admittedly, I also finished the book a few weeks after I started it, so that also created a rupture in my experience of the plot that I'm not sure was good for the overall effect.


I picked this up mostly based on "Oh yeah, I've heard the name Nuruddin Farah, I should read him" and the fact that Stephanie Huntwork made a beautiful cover for this novel. I've made bigger mistakes, to be sure.

It is the story of two Somali-American brothers who go to Somalia for different reasons: one to cover the story of the Courts' war with Ethiopia, one to find his missing stepson. It's potential for a great story, and it generally was.

However, it led sometimes into Kite Runner territory. Here are the two bright, strapping, American-educated men saving Somalia from itself. There are no positive Muslim characters and no negative secularist ones. Though there is some character depth, only Qasiir comes of as a multifaceted, complex, person. Everyone else is nefarious or crusading.

There has been some criticism of the dialogue, but I actually liked it. The way characters explain their situation and give expository on the country doesn't ring true to life, but I did enjoy it in a writerly sort of way. It reminds me of Foucault's Pendulum or any of the other books where characters are clear avatars of the writer's knowledge. It doesn't make for gripping plot, but it does allow for diatribe to be done skillfully.

As a man's opinion of Somalia, it is fascinating. I know incredibly little about the country, so to see how Mr. Farah views society there and the actions of the Somali diaspora is fascinating. Islamicists, Shabaab, Pirates, etc. are all discussed. And while it is obviously not scholarly, it is a good entry opinion. I enjoyed reading this book and learning about Somalia, from the 70's to today. Or at least Farah's opinion on such.

However, as a book, it can be weak. The way the Courts are shown as monsters and Somali diaspora as all great men is a bit tiring. The appearance of nagging wives is a bit tiring. Although I did find myself holding my breath through the denouement, I wasn't thrilled with how they got there.

It's a good book, if not a great one. And that's alright.


• This is the 3rd bk in The Past Imperfect trilogy – I did not read the first two books. Each of the books looks at the recent period in the history of Somalia – the books are done in chronological order
• This book looks at the period right before the Ethiopian (w/ US help) invasion
• This book gives a personal look through the characters about what you read in the news about the conditions of Somalia. It helped put a lot of the current events into perspective for me.
• I am not quite sure how to describe the writing style – the best word I can up with is “jumpy” – while I enjoyed the storyline, the history and the characters – just never really felt like I lost myself in the flow of the story.
• The characters were complex & flawed – the author did a good job of developing them and they felt real.
• Liked that a lot of the storylines dealt with professional people who were struggling to make sense of their country. Really focused on the people from the Somalian diaspora – those that left and those that returned
• The various storylines showed how fragile and uncertain everything is when various groups band together against a common “enemy” and then the hard part is once the common enemy is vanished – how to move forward
• Several of the characters were the main focus of the earlier bks in the trilogy but this did not take-away from reading this story
• Not sure if I will go back and read the first two books in trilogy – while I expect the historical events/characters to be interesting – not sure about the writing style
• I did not feel connected to any of the characters – I do think that they were realistically portrayed but just did not feel any emotional attachment to them – do not know if this is the author’s writing style and was intentional

Diane Brown

Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah delves into modern day Somalia. It paints a picture of a very difficult country to live in, with no room for trust, even among family members. A man's stepson disappears from the USA suspected of being recruited from a Mosque there, to join Shabaab. The man travels to Somalia to search for the boy, with a journalist relative. The journalist, whilst in Somalia, interviews warlords, pirates and middlemen trying to get to the bottom of his question -- Why are Somalians still poor if piracy is said to benefit them?

The author handles sensitive topics about how various countries benefit from the non-governance of Somalia through illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste. It deals with the illicit involvement of insurance companies in Europe in keeping the piracy alive. He also looks at the involvement of Ethiopia, USA and Kenya in fueling tensions and backing different forces in Somalia.

A very interesting book, jam packed with many political and global issues mainly conveyed through dialogue between the various characters and the interviews by the journalist. This book took a little longer than others I've read this year because I had to really concentrate and often go back to check on character names and link them to the current section I was reading - sometimes it got confusing.

I kept hoping the issues would become less strained, but then I realised that the author probably captured what it must feel like to live in a country without a regular governance structure, with invasions, warlords, insurgents, death, suicide bombings, foreign interests - where nothing is quite certain or stable.

T. Fowler

An unusual and interesting novel about modern Somalia, a land which we normallyu get only a glimpse of from negative news reports. The author is a Somali living in Minneapolis (and Cape Town) who has an understanding of Somali culture and, thus, helps us understand what it would be like to walk the streets of Mogadiscio [his spelling] or Bosaso in Puntland. The plot deals with two American-Somali men who travel to these regions: one to try and find a young relative that he fears has left the US to join the Islamists; the other, a journalist, wants to find out the truths about what is happening in that country. The book has a strange feel about it, as it is written in the present tense which makes it seem like a stage play or film script at times. The searches that both men do are fraught with danger in a virtually lawless country while meeting strange characters with strange names, like Jeebleh, Gumaad, Taxliil, Bigbeard, Youngthing and Truthteller. It almost has a dreamlike quality to it. The pace of the plot is quite slow, but it needs to be to help the reader absorb what is revealed about a very foreign culture.


A difficult book to rate. There were a lot of characters and until I came to review the book I was unaware that this was part of a trilogy. There was also a lot of dialogue that gave the book a feel it was a series of journalistic articles linked by the stories Jeebleh, Malik and Ahl as they return to Somali. The scenes with YoungThing were the best as they were what is normally seen in a novel.
The dialogue does provide a better understanding as to the causes and effects of Somali pirates which was an eye-opener. It also discussed a country without governance, where many factions rise and fall and the impact of the invasion from Ethiopia. The country is a mess, life is cheap and hope is rare.
Maybe if I had read the previous books I would have known more about the characters as there was no character development in this one.


I can't even rate this book because I gave up about a quarter of the way through. Maybe I needed to start with the first in the trilogy. First, the present tense narration seemed awkward and alienating. Second, I couldn't get interested in any of the characters. They didn't seem to have much depth. Third, I got tired of being "told" things about the cultural context etc. in ways that were supposed to be unobtrusive but were really annoying after awhile. Example: A character stops in a cafe and buys injera bread. Enough said? Oh, no, we need to be told what injera bread is, where it comes from , what it tastes like because of course, the reader can't figure that out from context or look it up. Tiresome. It seemed more like the intro for a National Geographic feature article that never got past the opening narrative example.