Two girls are dancing outside their grandmother’s house in Somalia. They go into the house and find a young woman, Ramah, dead as a result of a failed operation for female circumcision, FGM. Years later the action moves to Bristol, where the Somali family now live. Zarah is 15 and Samsam is six.
Some women come to the house of Zarah’s mother. Zarah recognises one of them as ‘the cutter’, the same woman who performed the fatal FGM on the deceased Ramah. She decides that she and her sister will run away to London to escape the deadly operation. Fortunately their cousin Yasmin is studying in London so they have some support in the capital.
The book narrates the story of the sisters’ flight and their struggle to reconcile their aspirations in a modern multi-cultural state with the traditions of their homeland.
It is a brave and worthy endeavour on the part of Craigie to tackle this subject. She does her best to explain why some people favour FGM: women are considered purer if they are incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure. For contemporary readers in a modern society, irrespective of age, explaining this phenomenon is a tricky and thankless task.
However my main criticism of this otherwise praiseworthy novel is that it employs a nakedly obvious narrative device. Zarah is resolved whatever the cost not to return to her family home: the reader can see exactly why. Her father goes to seek guidance from an Imam in a mosque. While there he suffers serious injuries in a fire. Loyalty to her father induces Zarah to go home, taking her younger sister with her. The profound conflict of values is thus resolved not by a rational or emotional process, but by a chance accident. The book ends with a revelation about the identity of the young woman who died in Somalia.