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.


Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.



Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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

sharing is caring!

Wanna help us spread the word? If you like this page, please share with your friends.

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.