This family story (384 pages) was published in January of 2014 by Vintage. The book takes you to Kenya. Melissa read Dust and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This compelling novel is a dreamlike exploration of grief and idealism set against the backdrop of modern Kenyan history. It tells the story of one fractured family to reveal the larger story of life in Kenya.
When the story opens, we’re thrust straight into the action. A young man named Odidi is literally running for his life from unidentified gunmen. As he lies dying in an alley, his last thoughts are snapshots of his personal history and of his beloved sister Ajany. His mind drifts through a remembered beating from his father, the day he rescued his baby sister from vultures, a frightening excursion into a cave, and the experience of attending an English-style boarding school. As he expires, we learn two essential truths: Ajany meant more to him than anyone else, and surviving Kenya is difficult.
Odidi’s funeral introduces the rest of the family, including blood relatives — his mother, father, an uncle — and lifelong friends that have become family. There’s also a mysterious British man and his son that are crucial to understanding the family history, but that is all shrouded in secrets.
Standing next to Odidi’s coffin, Ajany begins to accept her new reality, acknowledging the loss of her brother as a line that will divide her life forever. ‘Before-now was four hours and forty-three minutes ago. Rained-upon earth mingling with smoke and age and dust and sun and cows on a father’s coat, and her head tucked into its folds in welcome at the airport, the scent of coming home from all her Far Aways… But-now is icy eternity, thick with the terror of the voicelessness of her big brother.’
As Ajany mourns, two mysteries are slowly resolved: who killed Odidi and why, and who is the mysterious Brit whose life seems to parallel her own. Through snapshots of memory, subtext-laden conversations, and the characters’ internal monologues, we eventually learn all the secrets — both personal and political — that have been buried for decades.
Written with a lyrical, impressionistic style, this book demands your full attention. There are no passages of exposition to overtly explain political machinations, historical events, or the characters’ complex emotional reactions. But such is the power of Yvonne Owuor’s prose that you simply exist in this world without needing to connect it to the actual history — it all makes internal, emotional sense.
The narrative drive of this story comes from emotion; the whole story is grief made manifest in actions. There are devastating flash floods and physical, knock-down, drag-out fights. There are gun battles and weaponized sex, tender moments and frenetic dancing. And it’s clear that those are the outward expressions of overwhelming things inside the characters. And all of them, even the ones who only show up for a scene or two, are simultaneously on the run from something and yearning for something.
This book is challenging and beautiful, sad and unsettling — with a powerful sense of place. Although the story can be quite brutal, there’s always a shimmering undercurrent of hope for love, for understanding, and for redemption.
The pilot scans the horizon and swings the plane right to circumnavigate Mount Kenya. ‘Batian, Lenana, Macalder,’ he intones. The late-afternoon sun has colored the sparse snow crimson. Ajany squashes her face against the windowpane and feels their northward swing in her body. Soon the flamingos appear, on oyster-shell-colored water next to the milk-blue Anam Ka’alakol-Lake Turkana. The pilot says, ‘There’s Lake Logipi.’ They know. This is their territory. Teleki’s volcano, a brown bowl, windy landforms. They pass over Loiyangalani, toward Mount Kulal. Shift northeast, toward Kalacha Goda. They level over the salt flats fringing the Chalbi. Hurri Hills in the dusk light, and then, below, a wide unkempt stripe carved into the land. The plane flies through the layers of time, reveals the hollowed brown rock below from which Ajany and Odidi would survey the rustling march of desert locusts, dry golden-brown pastures where livestock browsed, and they would run after homemade kites, eat cactus berries, and curse one of the land’s visiting winds, which had ripped the kites to shreds. Wuoth Ogik. Home. — Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
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