ON A LINE-BY-LINE LEVER, Nadifa Mohamed isn't a great writer. She over-relies on similes, her dialogue is stilted, and her run-on sentences are a stylistic affectation that add little and frequently distract. But her grasp of the play of recent history in Africa and the Middle East—from fluxing Italian and British colonial interests in the 1930s through the unstable power dynamics of World War II—is clearly conveyed, on both a macro and a micro level. That Mohamed plausibly uses this complex history as a backdrop to what is essentially a coming-of-age novel, albeit a particularly bleak and brutal one, is a literary feat that offsets the occasional crudity of her storytelling.

Jama is a Yemeni boy who grows up half-wild, scrapping with other poor boys for food. When his mother dies, he travels north to find his father—through a war-torn and impoverished countryside, where the British Empire and Italy act out colonial power struggles with little regard for Africa's native inhabitants. As he relies on the kindness of his clansmen to provide food and shelter Jama is buffeted by forces often beyond his comprehension—"Stay away from the Fascists," one friend warns of Mussolini's soldiers, though Jama can't conceive of such an evil as "men who drop poison from their planes onto children." Jama's journey gives Black Mamba Boy its physical structure, but the novel's real movement comes from the slow broadening of Jama's perspective, as he grows to understand the world he lives in, and how he fits into it.