Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

A young man runs for his life in the streets of Nairobi, chased by unnamed assailants. Bullets whiz in all directions. As he runs, he flashes back to his girlfriend and his sister, Ajany. A bullet finds its target and he crumbles. He bleeds on the sidewalk. He coughs up blood. He stops breathing. Odidi Oganda is dead.

This is the dramatic opening of Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Serving as the focal point, Odidi’s death catapults us down labyrinthine paths that intertwine the tragedy of a family with that of a nation. Its many disparate threads weave in and out of the narrative, frequently returning to the focal point of Odidi’s death.

An Englishman comes to Kenya in search of his father; a father mourns for his son; a sister returns from Brazil to bury her brother and to learn the mysterious circumstances of his death; a mother runs away in a burst of uncontrollable rage. Each character is haunted by a past; each character wrestles with demons that won’t release their grip.

Threaded intermittently throughout this family tragedy is the story of Kenya: the political upheavals, the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, assassinations, murders, violence, torture, unidentified mass graves, secrets, lies, unspeakable crimes, revenge, smuggling rings, and corrupt officials.

This is a difficult book to read, not only because of its content. Adhiambo Owuor’s writing style presents some challenges. Much of the novel is written in fragments, one word sentences, shifts in time with no transitions, references to past events and people that leave the reader clueless, the occasional stream of consciousness in which a character shifts from the present to the past because a memory is triggered, and a smattering of Swahili which may or may not be followed by an English translation.

All this can be bewildering. But as we get accustomed to Owuor’s writing style and learn to read the novel, we may find it easier to decipher and piece together the disparate threads. Owuor captures the truncated language of trauma and recovery on behalf of a nation and its people, the fragmentary nature of memory, the struggle to deal with the violent death of a loved one, a speech that reveals only half-truths, secrets that refuse to stay buried, a country ravaged by violence and political turmoil, and an all-encompassing thin layer of dust covering the land and its people—a dust which blows this way and that at the slightest provocation to reveal the horrors that lie beneath.

What emerges from this complex work is a challenging read but one that is worth the effort for those willing to grapple with its style.


AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review