Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dust is Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's epic contemporary saga set in her home country, Kenya. Ajany Oganda returns to Nairobi from her new life in Brazil after receiving the news that her brother Odidi was murdered. Her father meets her at the airport and they travel north with Odidi's body to Wuoth Ogik, where she grew up. Her childhood home, an elaborate house built of pink coral, is falling apart. The history of that house in the drylands, and of her parents' marriage, and so much that came before these things, all have significance in Ajany's search for answers about Odidi's death.

Owuor won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 and Dust is her first novel. Her fragmentary, poetic style shifted my brain into a different gear, not quite like anything I'd experienced before. The effect was visceral. All of my senses engaged.

"Remember the moon. It falls to pieces. It becomes whole again. Galgalu had taken to lying under the stars so his nightmares had greater distances to cover before they reached him." Galgalu has worked for the Oganda family since before Ajany was born.

Akai Lokorijorn is Ajany's formidable, mentally disturbed mother. "At unpredictable moments, for nameless reasons, she might erupt with molten-rock fury, belching fire that damaged everything it encountered." Beware the woman who carries an AK-7.

Another of the many characters is Isaiah Bolton, a young British man who wants to learn the fate of his father, a man he never met. The following passage describes Isaiah's arrival in Nairobi:

  "A floral fragrance pierces his senses.
   Uneasy calm. Was the post-election thing over?
   The taxi driver with whom he haggles a day rate is a hearty man called Kalela. Their car is a rehabilitated Suburu.
   On the road.
   Film of shabbiness. The city's tensions in crunched-up shoulders. Honk, honk. Breathing. Movement. A noise jam. A hand-cart jam. A traffic jam. Two men strain at the handlebars of one mkokoteni cart. A woman in a small red T-shirt and white pedal pushers tiptoes across the street in pink high heels. Short-haired gentlemen in gray suits carrying briefcases weave through the traffic. Music boom-booms from a bucking matatu, which a driver steers along a broken island that separates roads, his body leaning outward. "Jinga huyo." Kalela spits at the empty patch where a matatu used to be."

When Ajany's father Nyipir was a child, he was told: "When you get out of this bus, after your feet reach the ground, don't look back. Only a hyena travels the same road twice." But the only way for Ajany and Isaiah to get answers is to stir up dark secrets from the past.

In Dust, desire is coupled with savagery; it's insatiable. Private sorrows entwine with a larger grief for the nation of Kenya.

The narrative rambles back and forth through time: uprisings against British colonial rule in the 1950s; Tom Mboya's assassination in 1969; ghosts and memories. The threads come together with breathtaking assurance. Violence is countered with humanity and hope.

Ajany "sits with a crowd in her heart." Owuor has left a bit of Kenya in mine.

I'm grateful to Knopf for access to an advance electronic review copy of Dust. The hardcover was published in January 2014.

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