WHAT must it be like to be a Somalian refugee pitched headlong into an unfamiliar city like Glasgow, living in an under-furnished flat in a rough area, trying to grasp a sense of the local culture and dialect, raising a four-year-old daughter and wondering where the sun has got to?

As Karen Campbell's latest novel opens, Abdi Hussan is struggling with all of these, as well as trying to negotiate local bureaucracy and its tortured official syntax, while putting up with the occasional burst of casual racism. Into his life comes Deborah Maxwell, a Glaswegian from a nice part of town who, recently widowed, is looking to, as she phrases it, "put something back". She becomes a volunteer with the Scottish Refugee Council, and is appointed as Abdi's mentor. They strike up a friendship, which proceeds in fits and starts; she helps him as best she can, shows him round Glasgow and takes him to Loch Lomond. She – and the reader – see the city and its people through Abdi's eyes.

In one passage, having arranged to meet him at the elephant in Kelvingrove Art Gallery And Museum, she wonders, too late, if she has made a cultural faux-pas. "Will he think I'm making fun of him, like saying I'll meet you in the jungle?" she chides herself. "Do they have elephants in Somalia? I have no idea ... Standing here, by the elephant, I feel faintly colonial too."

Chapters are written alternately by Deborah and Abdi. His isolation is particularly well handled, as is his relationship with his daughter Rebecca, who lives in a shell of her own. Abdi has converted to Christianity, which puts him largely outside the reach of the local Somali support network. Above all is the issue of what happened to his adored wife, Azira. She and Abdi were in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan then Kenya again, and now, in remote Glasgow, he is grieving for her.

This Is Where I Am is Campbell's fifth novel. She did an MA in English, Drama and French at Glasgow University, served as a uniformed constable in Glasgow's busy A Division, raised a family, worked on the media side at Glasgow City Council, and returned to her alma mater to take a creative writing Masters degree. Her previous novels formed a loose, police-based series – The Twilight Time, After The Fire, Shadowplay and Proof Of Life, all for Hodder & Stoughton – and all featured Anna Cameron, who rises through the ranks from sergeant to chief inspector. Campbell was named Best New Scottish Writer at the 2009 Scottish Variety Awards, while Shadowplay was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

In October 2011 it was announced Bloomsbury had acquired Campbell's new book. Next month, it will be showcased on Radio 4's Book At Bedtime.

Campbell, who is 45 but looks much younger, talks animatedly about her work. For a start, she does not differentiate between her Cameron novels and this new one. "All my books have been about social issues, about what you present to the world and what lies behind the scenes. They are just about people, and Glasgow, too.

"My husband Dougie had been doing voluntary work with the Scottish Refugee Council, and there would be lots of things he would come home and talk about. He was working on a helpdesk for people with any sort of issue. It might just be people wanting a letter read, or they couldn't get a house, or were getting hassles from neighbours.

"The catalyst for the whole book was his telling me about a refugee who had been bussed up here with his wife and baby. They were left at the high flats in some place like Sighthill. He had never heard of Glasgow, didn't know Scotland even existed. He was given some vouchers – they use cards now – to use in shops. He had to get milk and bread and things for the baby, so he wandered through the night to find the shop that would take the voucher.

"Once he got there, he didn't know you could open the chiller cabinets. He didn't know how to ask for anything. Someone took pity on him and gave him a pencil, and he drew a picture of a fish and showed it round until somebody realised he wanted fish fingers. That one story made me angry, but quite proud of Glasgow as well, that somebody had [helped] him."

The confidence with which Campbell writes about the themes in this book reflects her progress as a writer. "The first one [The Twilight Time] was familiar ground to me, but with every subsequent book I moved into territory I didn't know about. The second book was about firearms and police shootings. I have never held a gun. So with each book I have dipped my toe further into research in trying to feel what it must be like to wear a different skin. I couldn't possibly embark on a book like [the latest] without trying to understand as much as possible as someone who has never been in that situation."

Campbell, who was born in Paisley and raised in Glasgow, now lives in Galloway and talks about how much she misses Glasgow. She is about to embark on promotional duties for her new book, including the Aye Write! festival.

Some of This Is Where I Am is set, convincingly, in Kenya, where Abdi and his family endured life in an overcrowded refugee camp. "I've been in South Africa before, when I was in my teens, but not there," Campbell admits. "I knew what the heat was like, and the dustiness, and the big, empty sky, but I had never been to the actual refugee camp. But the internet's a great thing: you can go online and see things, and you can watch documentaries. A lot of aid workers do their own blog, and I learned things – for example, there is a cafe social-club in the camp for aid workers. All of those things were helpful.

"When I was writing the book, I spoke to refugees, and what was usually helpful was not so much my big assumptions, but little details about what was different coming here. One chap said it was the cold – he'd never felt cold that froze the blood inside his finger-tips. And I could relate to that. When I went to Africa I'd never experienced a wall of heat [like that]. So that was how I tried to do a lot of the book, to think: 'What can I compare this to? If I put myself into this person's place, how can I make myself feel the feelings that they might have had?'"

The book being set in Glasgow, of course, one particular enigma for Abdi is the local dialect. At one point, he tries to buy a Big Issue seller's magazine, but the seller, referring to Deborah, retorts crisply: "Naw. Yous had your chance – but your burd there gied me a dingy."

It isn't, you suspect, just Abdi who would find the meaning of that sentence elusive.

This Is Where I Am, Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99. Karen will appear (with Kerry Hudson) at Aye Write!, Mitchell Library, April 6, 6pm. Tickets £8 from 0141 353 8000 or www.ayewrite.com. For more information, see www.karencampbell.co.uk