Hiding in Plain Sight

By Nuruddin Farah

598 ratings - 2.9* vote

From an acclaimed African writer, a novel about family, freedom, and loyalty.   When Bella learns of the murder of her beloved half brother by political extremists in Mogadiscio, she’s in Rome. The two had different fathers but shared a Somali mother, from whom Bella’s inherited her freewheeling ways. An internationally known fashion photographer, dazzling but aloof, she c From an acclaimed African writer, a novel about family, freedom, and loyalty.   When Bella learns of the murder of

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Book details

Hardcover, 352 pages
October 30th 2014 by Riverhead Books

(first published October 2014)

Original Title
Hiding in Plain Sight
1594633363 (ISBN13: 9781594633362)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Ron Charles

Nuruddin Farah didn’t win the Nobel Prize in literature last month as was predicted — or at least hoped — in some quarters, but he remains a perennial contender. The celebrated Somali writer, who now teaches at Bard College in New York, has published a dozen novels, many of them dealing with questions of African identity that seem increasingly relevant to a world finally waking up to the continent’s true potential for disruption or success. In a year striking for its bounty of Africa-related novels, his new book, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” promises a rich exploration of political and social crises that American readers could be expected to savor.

The opening scene practically blows off the front cover of the novel. A Somali man, a single father named Aar who works for the United Nations in Mogadishu, receives a piece of paper that contains only one word: “DETH!” Aar is tempted to pretend that some poor speller wants relief from “debt,” but he knows how toxic the political climate is for people like him. He’s “struck with a sudden nausea; in fact, he is so panic-stricken that he thinks his knees may give way, forcing him to collapse to the floor.” By the time he composes himself and makes plans to flee, it’s too late: A jihadist group destroys the U.N. building, killing him and more than 30 others.

As a hook, this sweaty-palmed scene is terrifically exciting. As an indication of the tale that follows, it’s entirely misleading.

The novel proper is not actually a thriller at all. It’s a sensitive story about living in the shadow of grief, learning to forgive and trying to answer the question, “What does it mean to be Somali in this day and age?” The central character of “Hiding in Plain Sight” is Aar’s younger sister, Bella, a world-renowned fashion photographer. Summoned home by her brother’s murder, Bella must tearfully piece together the shards of his compartmentalized existence. (In a brutal example of life imitating art, Farah’s own sister was killed in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan this year, after he had finished a draft of this novel.)

Bella’s grieving is subsumed by the immediate needs of Aar’s children — her young niece and nephew living in Nairobi. What role will she now play in their lives? Is she willing to abandon her jet-setting career to care for these adolescents by herself? Those questions are complicated by the sudden arrival of the children’s long-absent mother, an exceedingly vain and manipulative lesbian named Valerie who “has a habit of creating confusion.”

This plot carries a number of sharp-edged themes and conflicts — including international terrorism, African prejudices against homosexuals, the rights of estranged parents and the responsibilities of the African diaspora. Farah knows this geographical, social and political territory well, and he’s a helpful, often didactic guide. All of these vital subjects, though, are muffled by his book’s exceedingly polite treatment of a shaken family learning to get along. “Hiding in Plain Sight” could prove an invaluable resource as, say, a model on how to handle a potentially contentious Thanksgiving weekend, but as an engaging novel, it’s less successful.

Part of this stems from the blandness of its prose. Worn phrases pock these pages: Bella is “drop-dead gorgeous,” and she dreams of being “dressed to the nines”; Valerie’s lover is “to die for.” More enervating is the plot’s allergy to any sustained tension. Valerie may behave badly and she may want to steal the children, but she really threatens this plucky group’s ability to work together. Bella and her niece and nephew engage in conversations that seem lifted from a pamphlet titled “Raising Responsible and Liberal-Minded African Teens.”

“People everywhere should be in a position to make their God-given choice and to be with those they choose to be with,” Bella tells these fantastically well-behaved adolescents. “We Africans lag behind the rest of the world, and we waste valuable energy putting our noses in people’s private lives.”

On cue, her nephew lobs over An Expansive Question: “Did living in Europe change your views, or are those views you held before you left Africa?”

“I’ve always appreciated differences,” Bella says. “My mother had a lot to do with that. She appreciated the things that set people apart.”

Then her niece asks, “Why are most of us so wrong about this?”

“We are ill informed about the world, ill educated, intolerant of the views of others when they do not agree with ours,” Bella says. “We are undemocratic, just like our governments. But sex is a personal matter that our societies and governments have no business with.”

Bella can tell that “the children are proud of her strong statement.”

“Hiding in Plain Sight” offers a similarly enriching dialogue on female circumcision. Among these characters, disagreement always evolves quickly into understanding and appreciation.

In one typical encounter, after reprimanding her nephew for behaving rudely, the young man asks Bella, “Can I rely on you to guide me and set me right when I go wrong?”

Where do such earnest angels live?

Not in the pages of engaging fiction.

This review was first published in The Washington Post:

Diane S ☔

When Aar is killed by a suicide bomber, or maybe a directed hit, his sister Bella, a renowned photographer returns to Kenya to care for her beloved brother's children. Valerie the children's mother had left War for another woman years before.

My reactions to this novel are very mixed. I enjoyed all the discussions on photography, as many of the characters are displaced Somaliland I liked reading about how they are judged in the country they fled to after the Civil War in Somalia. They also discuss the different food influences in their cuisines. When the children's mother reappears with her female partner, this provides the tension in the story as she originally attempts to get close to her children with the hope that they will choose to live with her and her partner.

What I had trouble with was the language, which felt998 stilted at times and the distance I felt from the characters. Also felt the ending was very abrupt and anti-climatic. So while I found the main story interesting enough to keep reading, I just expected more. So I would recommend this to readers who want to read about the Somalia refugee experience in Kenya and a family story that was somewhat different.

ARC from publisher.

Debbie Zapata

Not sure how this 2014 book arrived in my bookcase; It is much more current than most of the titles I read. I imagine I picked it up either at a library sale or at Dollar Tree during one of my trips to visit Mom. Now that I am in Arizona permanently, I have a goal of tidying and organizing all the books in my library, and I plan to give some away, too! (Really really.) So during my first hectic month in house, I have been picking those unread titles such as this one, and renewing my friendship with our local library as well.

But anyway, on to the book!

I made few notes, but an early one said 'not sure where this is going'. I wondered if Bella would get to her murdered brother's children in time to keep them from being kidnapped or also slain or some other such horror. And when the children's mom shows up after years of being awol, I expected many more fireworks between her and Bella than actually appeared.

It seemed like from page to page I was waiting for Something Big And Awful to happen and it never
did. While on one hand it was a relief in a way to know the characters would not have some bizarre super dramas to deal with, on the other hand the lack of that expected drama made the book fizzle out for me by the end. My final note about it says 'the ending seemed odd and disappointing'.

I did get another by the same author at the library to see what else he has done, and if I might like his other works better, but that is another story.


What does it mean to be a Somali in this day and age…particularly a Somali in Kenya? There may be no better author to answer that question than Somali-born Naruddin Farah, who provides an insight glimpse of a Somali photographer who must decide between freedom and family.

Bella is a renowned photographer who has never had to curb her private love life and her professional ambitions. But when her the man she loves most of all – her half-brother Aars, a U.N. official – is killed in a violent terrorist attack, she departs immediately to Nairobi to take on the responsibilities of her teenage niece and nephew. That journey places her at odds with the children’s birth mother, Valerie, who has deserted them many years ago for a freer life with her gay partner, Padmini. All begin to interact with each other as prescribed by who they are: their clan identity, their gender preferences, and, in the case of all the adults, their formerly nomadic lifestyles.

There are no major fireworks in this novel and the terrorist act is prologue to the wider backdrop of family conflict in an unsettled age. There is a lot to be learned about the modern day Somali woman: the bigotry against the Somali by the Kenyans, the treatment of gay women, the myths that pass as truth in defining those we don’t really know. Gently and compassionately, Farah creates a symphony of characters – ones that are rarely addressed in literature and not understood by the world in general – and provides insights into what motivates and drives them and how their interactions cannot be readily defined by our own expectations.

If I have any quibble with the novel, it’s this: Nuruddin Farah sometimes excercises his authorial right to lead the reader. Discussions among the characters about topics such as female circumcision, for example, seem to be coming more from the author’s need to educate than from the characters’ true dialogue.

That being said, this is a fascinating – even unforgettable – novel that fills an important niche.

Sharon Huether

I won this book through Goodreads first-reads. When Aar dies in a terrorist attack, his sister Bella takes charge of his children. Their mother left them years before. Being a first time mother was a learning experience for Bella. She does it with so much love and wisdom. She showed a great deal of tackfulness too. The author made the characters very real. The story had a nice flow to it. It was a very refreshing book to read.

switterbug (Betsey)

The tension between geopolitical landscapes and the promise of a universal domestic drama piqued my interest in reading this book. The premise is intriguing: a beautiful, statuesque photographer, Bella, daughter of a Somali mother and Italian father, is informed that her half-brother, Aar, (on mother's side) has been killed by terrorists during his work with the UN. Aar lived in Nairobi with his teenaged daughter and son; the children's mother, Valerie, abandoned them years ago to pursue a relationship with another woman. Now she is back in the picture with a lawyer, ready to take up a fight for her children. Bella leaves Rome, where she has been living for many years, to move to Kenya and take care of the children in Nairobi (per Aar's wishes) and deal with Valerie. Growing up, she was half in love with Aar herself.

There's a flat, stilted style to Farah's narrative that removed any feeling of immediacy. It's a mix of declarative sentences and static details, which is occasionally heavy-handed. There's the sense that passages are being filtered through the author's socio-political lens before he shares it with the reader. I'm not quite sure if Farah thought that we wouldn't grasp enough of the nuances, or whether he wasn't able to step aside and let us come to our own conclusions. Too often, he justified a character's action or thought, which dispatched me out of the story and into the author's agenda. Farah also seemed to be edifying his readers about Somali customs and perceptions toward homosexuality, genital mutilation, and female assertion, but instead of it coming organically from the story, it had the touch of pulpit sermonizing.

As for the characters, they never truly came alive for me. The author had a ripe opportunity to illustrate inner conflict in Bella, who abruptly dropped her carefree, single lifestyle in Italy to mother two teens in Nairobi. And, not a look back! It isn't just her altruism that is hard to swallow, but her too-immediate adjustment. She takes on the nurturing, mothering role so seamlessly that it is hard to believe that she was living in a fast-paced, narcissistic world of fame, money, and beautiful people. Bella is single, with several lovers and a lucrative career, but has zero qualms about her new obligation. As the reader, I did not see Bella struggling to adapt. She was also the ultimate diplomat in every situation. The few times that she was blunt to people, they were portrayed to deserve it.

Aar is just the vehicle for the story, and possessed one-dimensional attributes. The victim of terrorism, his portrait was sympathetic but superficial. Like Bella, he was morally and ethically above reproach. Valerie, the ex- and the putative villain, left little to the imagination. What is even more irritating is that the potentially complicated situation gets wrapped up too conveniently in a bow. Valerie's lover, ethnically Indian but Ugandan-born Padmini, is largely a straw for the author's facile handling of Valerie.

The most complex characters were the children-- Salif, the eldest child, and his sister, Dahaba. Farah showed subtle insight into the issues of teenagers facing tragedy. Their mixed feelings toward their mother were often realistic, although Farah didn't mine it sufficiently. Their cycling emotions, although not adequately explored, were realistic.

It took me a few weeks to complete this novel, as it didn't compel me to keep turning the pages. Besides the stilted style, there were a lot of unnecessary details, such as mundane cooking and other domestic chores, that put the brakes on the story. Moreover, Farah periodically put too repetitive a point on things. For example, it was made clear early on that Aar and his children respected the Muslim culture but were not strict with custom; the children ate bacon, for one thing. But there was too much zeroing in on cooking bacon. It appeared that the author wanted to keep reminding us, in case we forgot!

The story, which took up 339 pages, could have been shaved down to a 90-page novella. If you eliminated the excess minutiae, the result would have had more momentum, if not more intrigue. As it was, there really wasn't a lot of scope in this story of a disrupted, blended family.


Review also found at http://kristineandterri.blogspot.ca/2...

I won an uncorrected copy of this book in a giveaway on Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

I really do not know what to say about this story. I was left feeling rather disappointed at the end. I just don't know if I can elaborate on why.

What was set up to be a compelling storyline ended up falling a little flat for me. The concept of a sister travelling back to Africa to care for her deceased brothers children and dealing with the biological mother entering back in to the equation held so much potential. I couldn't wait to find out what would happen. The problem is I have turned over the last page and I am still waiting. Nothing really happened in this story.

Add to it that I was rather annoyed with almost every character. The children were either bratty or too mature for their age. Bella was too formal to the point that she didn't seem realistic. Valerie was a nightmare however that was to be expected.

I don't know, I am feeling a little frustrated after the investment of my time on this book. What had really good bones just failed to develop in to a compelling story for me.


I'm sorry I wasted time on this book. It got a good review in the Washington Post, so I requested it from the library. Dull, dull, dull. Boring characters with a narrative riddled with cliches. "Cooing sweet nothings." "Went ballistic." "Opened a can of worms." "Snowball's chance in hell." Farah has been nominated for a Noble Prize in Literature? He must have written a better book than this one. I felt that he padded this book to make it 300-plus pages long. Descriptions of people cooking breakfast--bacon and eggs and toast. Eggs with runny yolks, eggs with firm yolks. Bleh. Who cares? I wish I'd chosen one of Farah's other books to introduce myself to him.

Rosebelle Otieno

There were two key reasons why I wanted - no needed - to read this book. First, the book is set mainly in my hometown - Nairobi. Second, I hoped I would learn more about the Somali community which I feel is deeply misunderstood. The fact that it is written by Nuruddin Farah was an added bonus.

The start of the book was gripping, unfortunately that was the only part that I enjoyed. There was too much author commentary and it didn't help that the author got some of the things about my hometown wrong. Yes, yes, it's a work of fiction but if you are going to write about London, you wouldn't include the Statue of Liberty.

All in all, I finished the book because I am a completer finisher like that.


After jumping out of the gate in the prologue, the book sputters along as the reader slowly figures out nothing else is going to happen. The dialogue is overwrought and nothing resonates. There are drawn out forays into photography and African geography that add nothing. The chapters turn into documentary-style accounts of everyday life in a family with events that could be interesting, but aren't.

I wouldn't have finished the book except that I kept thinking there had to be more. Something more had to happen. But let me assure you, lest you think the same. There isn't any more than the prologue.