I admit I read this book with a map at hand, and with encyclopedic articles about the history and politics of Somalia handy, too. Which succinctly says a great deal about both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

The last book in a trilogy by the renowned Nuruddin Farah, a Somalia-born writer who holds the Winton Chair in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, "Crossbones" tells the story of a Somali-American man, Ahl, going to Somalia in the midst of its seemingly endless civil war to try to retrieve his stepson, who's been recruited into Al-Shabab, a Somali arm of Al-Qaida, by an imam in Minneapolis.

A parallel story involves Ahl's brother Malik, a journalist, who goes to Somalia at the same time to report on the war, the state of the country and the piracy infamously occurring off the coast.

The war, the imposition of sharia law by the Islamic Courts Union, the drafting of Somali teens from Minnesota into Al-Shabab, the piracy in the Arabian Sea: All play an important part in this story and must be explained, especially to an audience of geographically and historically challenged American readers. And explain Farah does. Again and again he stops his narrative to give us background, to tell us what Somalis are like.

For instance, "In Somalia, crowds form quickly, maybe because people are hungry in many ways: hungry for news, good or bad; hungry and also hopeful that they stand to gain by standing close to where something is happening, to where two people are talking. But crowds change into mobs at the sound of a clarion call."

Or: "But Somalis, he knows, seldom admit to red herrings. It is typical of them to confound issues, mistake a metonym for a synedoche. While there is always a beginning to an argument, there is never an end, never a logical conclusion to their disputation."

That such overviews, asides and generalizations should lend themselves to clichés and flat language is no surprise; but the flatness does tend to detract from what should be a compelling, even harrowing, tale. And further, when the harrowing thing happens -- when someone we've come to know and care about is blown up or killed -- it happens offstage. We hear about it later, as the news reaches other characters.

In many ways, though, this may brilliantly reproduce the quality of life and death in Somalia, and especially in Mogadishu. "What a dastardly city!" one character cries, upon hearing awful news. "What an accursed country!" As much as we come to care about some of these characters, we are left with a reality that values individuals far less than art does. "I often think how, in fiction, death serves a purpose," Malik observes. "I wish I knew the objective of such a real-life death."

Farah's accomplishment is, through art, showing us both the value and the devaluing of life through the machinations of historical, political and social power.

Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis., and a teacher in the Fairleigh-Dickinson MFA program.

Coming in Tuesday's Variety: A profile of Nuruddin Farah, by Allie Shah.