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book review

A suicide bomber’s secular family strains to embrace his wife and stepchildren

Stuart Bradford for the boston globe

Years after the death of her husband, even after she’s married again, Waliya still thinks of him with longing.

“How I miss your stepdad, a man unlike any I’ve known,” she says to her daughter and son near the end of Nuruddin Farah’s affecting new novel, “North of Dawn.” “Gentle. Kind. Sweet. Generous. Had your stepdad been alive, we wouldn’t have come to Norway, and our lives would have been much happier.”

The regret she doesn’t seem to have is about what her late husband, Dhaqaneh, chose to do with his time on earth. Raised in upper-middle-class comfort by Somali immigrant parents who are nominally Muslim but long ago embraced European secularism, he became an Islamist terrorist. Abandoning their adopted Oslo, he returned to Mogadiscio, where he died by blowing himself up.

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His father, Mugdi, a former diplomat, refuses to mourn the hateful end of such a violent and wasted life. But Gacalo, Dhaqaneh‘s mother, cannot stop grieving for the lovely boy he once was, before poisonous ideas took root in his brain. Helpless to break his embrace of an ideology she despises, she never did cut him off while he was alive. Vile and dangerous as he had become, she still took comfort in hearing from him.

So Gacalo, who works for the Norwegian government, possesses the steely soft touch as Farah’s intricate, morally wise saga begins. She has never met Waliya or her children — Saafi, who is 14, and her 12-year-old brother, Naciim — but they were her son’s family. Honoring her promise to Dhaqaneh that she would look after them if anything should happen to him, she is determined to bring them to Oslo.

Though Mugdi is against the idea, Gacalo prevails, and into their settled and sensible lives come these refugees, whose outlook on the world is as Dhaqaneh shaped it.

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Timiro, his only sibling, regards her sister-in-law with frank hostility.

“Are you a member of a jihadi cell operating in Europe?” she demands.

“I am a widow with two children,” Waliya says, which of course does not answer the question.

Rigorously devout, in thrall to imams far from the Islamic mainstream, Waliya insists that Saafi and Naciim follow her lead. This works less well than she intends.

“North of Dawn” is about assimilation and alienation, suspicion and acceptance, deliberate harm and collateral damage. It’s about the rootlessness of displacement, the illusion of safety, and the terrible presumption of guilt by association.

It is also, in great part, a love story — not a romance, but a tale of the fierce and essential bond that grows between Mugdi and Naciim, who for his step-grandparents represents a second chance. When he first arrives in Norway, Naciim is pumped up with all the unearned self-regard, and contempt for women, that you might expect in a boy who has been told he is in charge now, the man of the family.

“Where have you learned this machismo?” the gentle Mugdi asks, and he begins right then to teach him differently. Naciim, for all his bluster, is just a kid, one who spent much of his childhood in a refugee camp.

In Oslo, he takes to his new surroundings with charming eagerness, learning the language, finding friends, and embracing a more egalitarian worldview. A black Muslim boy in an overwhelmingly white Christian country, he sets about to make himself at home.

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Part of the tension of the novel is the knowledge that young Dhaqaneh was open and thoughtful, too, before he lost his way. The suspense that propels “North of Dawn” stems from this worry: Will the children be OK?

The dialogue has a tendency toward awkward exposition, yet the patient clarity of Farah’s storytelling makes the cultures he depicts, and the history he outlines, easily comprehensible. His characters are beautifully drawn, their psychology complex. The pious Saafi, in particular, is fascinating to watch as she begins to stand up for herself against the mother she loves and a version of Islam that tells her she is worthless for being female.

Farah (“Hiding in Plain Sight”), who lives in South Africa, dedicates the book to his younger sister, Basra Farah, who was murdered by Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan in 2014. In his acknowledgments, he extends his deepest gratitude to the mother of a Somali-Norwegian girl killed in the 2011 slaughter by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right terrorist. To Farah, such extremists amount to the same ugliness in different forms.

“We are caught between a small group of Nazi-inspired vigilantes and a small group of radical jihadists claiming to belong to a purer strain of Islam,” an old friend of Mugdi laments after Breivik’s attack. “I say, ‘A plague on both their houses.’ ”

What we need, Farah suggests, is to build a better house — one that welcomes the good-hearted stranger, and casts the wicked out.

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NORTH OF DAWN

By Nuruddin Farah

Riverhead, 373 pp., $27


Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.