Book Review: City of Thorns

In ‘City of Thorns’ Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for human rights watch, tells the story of the world’s largest refugee camp by focusing on some of the individuals who have, as best they can, made their lives there. The camp in question, Dadaab, began its life in 1992 as a temporary home for 90,000 refugees escaping the civil war in Somalia. When City of Thorns was published in 2016 Dadaab had grown beyond any initial plans, and today Wikipedia describes it as “a semi-arid town” in East Kenya.

Throughout the book Rawlence intersperses context and backstory to the camp and its inhabitants with the events and people in the present of the narrative. This can work well, and frequently does in City of Thorns, but at times it became difficult to follow, particularly early on while we’re still working out which of the new people being introduced will continue to be followed and which are just being described in passing. There were definitely times where it felt more like a collection of loosely related vignettes than a structured collection of individual narratives, but I think to an extent that reflects the scattered and unmoored nature of life in Dadaab.

City of Thorns does a good job of juxtaposing the political and logistical decisions being made at a remove from the camp with the real, human, tragedy that comes as a result of those decisions. Rawlence’s voice is evident in the writing, and he paints vivid pictures of Dadaab and its various inhabitants as they are introduced but, on the whole, he maintains a researcher’s approach to the subject matter. The writing style is dispassionate, allowing the horror of some of the events described to speak for themselves. While I did sometimes feel that this made it easier not to acknowledge the depth of suffering the book’s characters endured, I think on balance it was an important choice for the sake of both credibility and ease of reading. When a desperately overcrowded maternity ward is described, Rawlence limits himself to facts relayed to him by a woman who was there; the death of a child, and the fifty or more women crammed into the room who had to hear his mother crying through the night. There are no descriptive embellishments required.

“The refugee camp has the structure of punishment without the crime.”
– Ben Rawlence, City of Thorns

I think it’s important to resist the temptation to cast heroes and villains in stories of the real world, to resist that simplification of perspectives.  In ‘City of Thorns’ Rawlence has obviously tried to show sympathy to the fear and uncertainty of the aid workers, politicians and police working in the camps, without diminishing the horror of the way the refugees are treated. It’s a fine line to tread, and I think the author does an admirable job. The refugees themselves, while obviously described sympathetically, are also given room within the stories relayed to behave badly. Not all of the people Rawlence follows through the book are easy to like, but the impossibility of their situation is undeniable.

While occasionally difficult to follow, City of Thorns tells a compelling story through the lives of nine inhabitants of Dadaab. Tragic, heart-breaking, but not entirely without hope, I think this is an important reminder of the actual people behind the headlines and statistics. This isn’t a non-fiction book that reads like fiction, and if you need a strong narrative through-line in your books this one might be a struggle, but I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to know more about the actual people we’re talking about within the phrase “Refugee Crisis”.

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