Wednesday 13 December 2017

Book Review: In the African dust

Francesca Wade on a mesmerising Kenyan novel shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize

An African landscape
An African landscape
Dust - Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

'Places are ghosts," writes the Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor in this, her richly evocative debut novel, shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize two weeks ago. "Memories are ghosts."

Owuor's Kenya, its streets streaked with state-sanctioned murders in the wake of the country's 2007 elections, is haunted by the ghosts of earlier violence (the Mau Mau uprisings of the early 1950s; the 1969 assassination of president Tom Mboya; the 1998 Nairobi bombing).

Her characters, too, are haunted: the Oganda family by their son Odidi, killed by police in Nairobi; visiting Englishman Isaiah Bolton by his father Hugh, a man he never knew.

Owuor's language is pungent, poetic, almost synaesthetic. She conjures deep colours ("orange dusk's light"; "red, purple, and blue smudges in the sky"), smells ("dung, salt, milk, smoke, herbs") and noises: the constant hum of fireflies and crickets, which give way to the imagined wails of the dead.

The novel opens with Odidi Oganda on the run from police, leaping over "two fire-painted blossoms resting on the stark cracked city pavement" which unfurl into "orange-and-black butterflies that flutter into the violet shade of a smog-encrusted roadside jacaranda tree". As Odidi pants on, Owuor's languorous descriptions dissolve, breathlessly, into short, elliptical phrases: "Shelter of faith." "Flood tide in his blood." "Shadow and regret." Although the density of her language sometimes threatens to submerge plot details, it provides the novel's main delight.

Odidi's death occupies the prologue, and reverberates throughout. The Oganda family's mourning for their son (whose corpse briefly languishes in a mortuary tagged "Unknown African Male") epitomises the country's mourning for its hoards of nameless dead.

Odidi's sister, Ajany, returns from Brazil to the family home; having buried her brother, she leaves to search out his stories.

Over the course of her journey, she meets an engineer, Odidi's former colleague, who tells a tale of her brother's stand against governmental corruption, and the prostitute pregnant with his child, whose harrowing life-story is by now a cliché: "Disease. Job loss. Death."

Their stories are interwoven with those of other characters: Isaiah Bolton, arrived in Kenya on a mission to establish the links between his colonist father and the Oganda family; and Ajany's father, Nyipur, who worked as a "vulturer" after primary school, disposing of corpses killed by colonial forces.

"To name something is to bring it to life," says the narrator as Odidi's mother clasps her son's body, desperately calling out his name.

Owuor's novel gives a voice to a people who love stories, but whose own identities have been systematically erased by brash colonials and by their own government, who are practised in murder and in expunging names from official records.

Kenya's languages are "English, Kiswahili, and Silence", and a sense of palpable despair gives urgency to the narrative. ("This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises"). But what emerges is a subtle, sensitive portrait of a place where "time hums an ancient, eerie tune", where corrupt policemen still "use money to Sellotape our war wounds", a country still attempting to exorcise the past to establish a "light-filled future", but yet to find a satisfactory answer to the narrator's plaintive refrain: "What endures?"

Dust; Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Vintage Books, hdbk, 370pp, £16.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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