April Book of the Month – TBC Book Club
Our virtual book club enters the second month. We have selected Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor as the book of the month; the book automatically attracts a discount of 10% in all TBC branches and online shop. The club brings together literary enthusiasts and book lovers across the globe to read and discuss the book for a period of one month on Facebook and Twitter under the hash tag #TBCBookClub.
April Book of the Month – Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.
In this dazzling novel you will find the entirety of human experience — tearshed, bloodshed, lust, love — in staggering proportions.
Dust, is set against the backdrop of the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections in Kenya. The result of the presidential election was contested, but nevertheless Mwai Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in as president, inaugurating weeks of violence and hundreds of deaths. The political meaning of these events – and their historical connection to cynical imperial manipulations and violence, to atrocities in response to the Mau Mau rebellion and to the brutalities of the post-independence state – are not fully explained in the novel. Explanations unfold as memories and secrets are forced out by circumstance, revealing themselves to the reader and to the figures in the narrative itself. It is a demanding method, but executed to great effect.
The book opens with a death. There are many deaths in the novel, but this is the one that sets the narrative in motion. Odidi Oganda is killed in a gunfight with the police on the streets of Nairobi on the night of the elections, 27 December 2007. His death is not directly linked to the elections, but it is one of the consequences of the dereliction that has befallen Kenya.
Odidi was a brilliant engineer, whose disgust with the cynical corruption of the powerful has turned him into the leader of a criminal gang. On the night of his death, he has just made the decision to leave Nairobi and return to his estranged family. His death brings his sister Ajany back from Brazil, summoned home by her father, Nyipir. Together they collect Odidi’s body from the morgue and take it home to the northern dry lands around Lake Turkana, where his mother, Akai, waits. On the night of their flight north, Kibaki is sworn in as president: “On the ground, that night, in a furtive ceremony, beneath a half moon, a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the president of a burning, dying country.”
The dry landscape is evoked in beautiful detail by Owuor and shown to be anything but arid. Dust and intermittent flood are made into a metaphor: water turns dust into mud, which can then be shaped and sculpted, just as dispersed histories are brought together by memory and stories. The metaphor is made concrete in the sculpture Ajany makes of her father’s missing brother, whom she only knows from stories. This apparently arid landscape also provides Owuor with an inclusive and complex vision of Kenya. In it are people of many provenances: Turkana, Luo from the south, Somali herdsmen and traders, an Eritrean police officer, an intelligence officer originally from Mombasa, an Indian shopkeeper, missionaries and an English colonial police officer, who is central to the plot. It is a heterogenous vision of Kenya, a rebuttal of the corrosive parochialism that was the source of the divisions in the “burning, dying country”.
Each one of these people has a story, and Owuor works hard to make them both mysterious and plausible. The narrative skilfully shifts focus between these stories without losing direction or tension. But there is a core mystery, and that is the affair between Akai and the British colonial official, Hugh Bolton. The unravelling of this “secret”, together with its sordid and violent end, are delivered through layers of narratives involving several of the characters.
As with so many of the histories in this novel, hatred and violence are never very far from love. Ajany Oganda had stabbed her Brazilian boyfriend just before her father called her home. Nyipir Oganda was a gun-runner and a killer. In her grief, Akai had abandoned her daughter to the vultures. Hugh Bolton was both a painter and a torturer. No one is entirely free from guilt, and as this is revealed so the worth of the individual is measured by a capacity for regret and forgiveness.
At the core of Owuor’s novel, disguised by its intensely poeticised evocation of experience and its desire to avoid an easy emotionalism, is a moral concern to forgive past wrongs. This is not to grant her creations an easy salvation, but it is the only way forward for them – and for Kenya. Dust is a fine, compassionate novel that relishes the complexity of human relations. It is written in a language that is often beautifully observant, and is alert in its insight and sympathy.