Review of Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta, 2014).
Kenyan novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor writes poetically, but the heart of this novel lies in that which is not said.
At one point in this remarkable novel Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor lists ‘Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence’. She writes in all three, but the greatest of these is Silence. It pervades the clipped lyricism of her writing, and the ‘dessicated terrains’ of northern Kenya that she describes: ‘a massive canvas of glowing, rocky, heated earth upon which anything could and did happen’. And it lives in her enigmatic characters, nurturing their own secrets and guilt, each with their ‘eyes-turned-inward silences’ that the reader only slowly learns to decipher.
This is an extraordinary way of writing: dense, demanding, aridly poetic. Other reviewers have compared it – fairly, I think – to Faulkner. There is no friendly narrator, no gentle exposition. A plane to the north ‘flies through layers of time’, and so too does the narrative, skipping across decades but written always in a claustrophobic present tense – a counterpoint to the vast landscapes it inhabits, with that ‘endless dome’ of sky. Despite a dramatic prologue, in which a young man is gunned down on a Nairobi street, this is not a novel that makes its dilemmas known; they emerge in fragments, the full agony often withheld until resolution. The reader feels at times like two of the book’s main characters, recalling their youth, when there was ‘no one to tell the children how it had been, what it meant, how it must be seen, or even what it was’.
That opening murder, described in brisk, vivid paragraphs, is not the subject of this novel. Nor are other murders, though they resonate with it. In the background are the assassination of Tom Mboya, an independence hero and politician, in 1969, and the deaths of hundreds of Kenyans in election-related violence in 2007, when the bulk of the novel is set. Kenya, writes Owuor, is ‘a nation that is gluing its cracked shell together again’. But this is not an explicitly political novel: the politics is written in the Silence, not in the English, and may pass unnoticed by readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history.
Indeed there are not many scenes of violence in Dust, for all the AK-47s that are smuggled through its pages. Instead there are memories of violence, and of violence untold. Few of the characters have clean hands. But Owuor neither condemns nor exonerates: like her countryman Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his masterful A Grain of Wheat, she recognises that there is sometimes no right choice. The violence here is entangled with lust, and at times seems indistinguishable from it, not least in the novel’s only scene of seduction, imagined with complex (if slightly unsatisfactory) brutality.
Owuor enlists a diverse group of characters: Luo and Kikuyu, but also Eritrean, Indian and British. The novel centres on Arabel Ajany, younger sister of Odidi, the murder victim in the opening scene. She has returned from Brazil to bury her brother; returned, too, to her strange, estranged family in the remote farmstead of Wuoth Ogik. Her father, Nyipir, is a cattle-herder and gun smuggler, reciting the latitude and longitude of the distant Burmese forest where his own father and brother disappeared, fighting for the British Empire. Her beautiful, unloving mother, Akai, is the most pivotal and most elusive character of all, running off to ‘outsprint death’ – and, perhaps, her own memories.
The plot does not yield easily, and Owuor’s style takes some getting used to. Even two-thirds of the way through, Dust feels disappointing, somehow less than the sum of its parts. The peripheral characters enchant, but seem superfluous; the persistent Englishman, Isaiah Bolton, also on a quest for a lost father, seems only partially realised. But in a spiralling, moving conclusion, as the novel’s meanings are woven together, the reader feels bound to offer apologies to Owuor, for ever having doubted her: the delicately judged weights, of character, plotline, and emphasis, are only apparent in their realisation.
Owuor, like Galgalu, the orphaned son of a spirit-medium in Dust, is ‘an intermediary between fate and desire, a cartographer of unutterable realms’. Dust is a devastatingly accomplished debut, worthy of the plaudits it has received (it was shortlisted for the Folio Prize). The odd cliché is easily forgiven, as too can moments that would be sentimental in the hands of a lesser writer.
This is rarely a page-turner, but has a more profound quality: that the reader, upon finishing, will immediately want to turn the pages back and re-read, with wiser eyes, what came before. In the first reading, Owuor gives us the English (and snatches of Kiswahili). But second time round, we are able to read the Silence.