Dance of the Jakarandaby Peter Kimani
"Destined to become one of the greats...This is not hyperbole: it’s a masterpiece."
"The author has built here not only, on these pages, not only a railroad, but the singular triumph of a highly diverting novel. Besides weaving an excellent plot-line, he offers the reader a classic, understated writing style that/i>/b>
"Destined to become one of the greats...This is not hyperbole: it’s a masterpiece."
"The author has built here not only, on these pages, not only a railroad, but the singular triumph of a highly diverting novel. Besides weaving an excellent plot-line, he offers the reader a classic, understated writing style that haunts much of this book, turns it into a minor masterpiece."
RALPH Magazine, Starred review
"In his American debut, Kimani illustrates the discordant history of East Indians in Kenya through a fabulously complicated set of intriguing characters and events...Highlighted by its exquisite voice, Kimani’s novel is a standout debut."
"Kimani’s descriptive and inventive prose recounts personal stories of love and tragedy within a context of racial hierarchies and the fallout of colonial rule...Babu’s story feels weighted by history in a way that will remind readers of Gabriel García Márquez’s work...Kimani’s complex novel will leave readers questioning the meanings of citizenship and belonging during an era of significant social upheaval in Kenya’s history."
"African colonialism is confronted in this subtle, multilayered Kenyan tale...Lyrical and powerful...Kimani weaves together a bitter, hurtful past and hopeful present in this rich tale of Kenyan history and culture, the railroad, and the men and women whose lives it profoundly affected...This is a thoughtful story about a country's imperialist past."
"Through lyrical, seductive prose, Peter Kimani weaves an impressively intricate tapestry of events and characters that give much-needed names and faces to an important facet of Kenya’s colonial history."
Black Books Quotes
"The characters are human, teaching us that even someone who does wrong is not all bad, and Kimani writes with such vivid detail that one can easily visualize the vast scenery. Reminiscent of Iman Verjee’s Who Will Catch Us as We Fall, this novel will appeal to readers of historical and literary fiction."
"In this clever and mesmerizing story, the author takes the reader on a journey to another time and place, where twists and turns provide a truly entertaining ride."
"Peter Kimani, an acclaimed writer and poet, has brilliantly constructed this novel’s plot...[His] lyrical prose, such as portraying the train as ‘a massive snakelike creature,’ and his breathtaking descriptions of ‘God’s country’ bring the beauty of the land before our eyes."
Historical Novels Review
"A compelling story conveying a powerful social and cultural critique along with a marvelous portrait of the beauties and wonders of Kenya, all punctuated with tragedy."
New York Journal of Books
Set in the shadow of Kenya's independence from Great Britain, Dance of the Jakaranda reimagines the special circumstances that brought black, brown and white men together to lay the railroad that heralded the birth of the nation.
The novel traces the lives and loves of three menpreacher Richard Turnbull, the colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and Indian technician Babu Salimwhose lives intersect when they are implicated in the controversial birth of a child. Years later, when Babu's grandson Rajanwho ekes out a living by singing Babu's epic tales of the railway's constructionaccidentally kisses a mysterious stranger in a dark nightclub, the encounter provides the spark to illuminate the three men's shared, murky past.
With its riveting multiracial, multicultural cast and diverse literary allusions, Dance of the Jakaranda could well be a story of globalization. Yet the novel is firmly anchored in the African oral storytelling tradition, its language a dreamy, exalted, and earthy mix that creates new thresholds of identity, providing a fresh metaphor for race in contemporary Africa.
In his American debut, Kimani illustrates the discordant history of East Indians in Kenya through a fabulously complicated set of intriguing characters and events. One balmy night in 1963, a musician named Rajan is transfixed by the kiss of an ambiguously ethnic woman named Mariam, whose ethnicity seems ambiguous (Rajan himself is East Indian). He takes her home to his grandfather Babu, a meeting that “transcended any explanation other than fate.” Babu, it turns out, was a Punjabi laborer who first arrived in Mombasa in 1897 to build the railroad that “slithered down the savanna” under the direction of Mariam’s illegitimate English grandfather, commissioner McDonald. After a misunderstanding between the two men blossoms “into a grudge that would last a lifetime,” an intricate set of events comes to fruition with Rajan and Mariam’s relationship. The joy of Kimani’s storytelling is only rarely hampered by the unwieldiness of his plot; he alternates between the colonial past and the “season of anomie” that begins when an edict from the Big Man, who rules the newly independent Kenya and threatens “foreign nationals” (those whose heritage was English or East Indian) such as Rajan with deportation. Rajan’s understanding of himself as “a brown man in a black world which had been placed under white rule” fractures as surely as the nation itself does, sent reeling in the face of a “past that had finally caught up with the present to complicate the future.” Highlighted by its exquisite voice, Kimani’s novel is a standout debut. (Feb.)
A New Day
"Dance of the Jakaranda is a rare gem: a new story, a new voice, a new way of seeing the world. This is what a brilliant novel looks like. Peter Kimani is a rare talent, an important new literary voice in Kenya, in Africa, and the world."
Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day
"In this racially charged dance of power, the railroad into the interior of the country becomes a journey into the hearts of men and women. It is a dance of love and hate and mixed motives that drive human actions and alter the course of history. Kimani's writing has the clarity of analytic prose and the lyrical tenderness of poetry."
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, author of Birth of a Dream Weaver
Kenyan author Kimani, who currently teaches at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, holds a doctorate in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston and was commissioned by NPR to compose a poem for Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. Marking his U.S. debut, his latest novel is another accomplishment he can add to his list. Set on the cusp of Kenya's independence, it focuses on the lives of three men and their multigenerational, multicultural connections during a volatile time in the nation's history. The main protagonist, Rajan, is a musician who sits at the intersection of the upheaval. When he starts dating a beautiful white woman, Miriam, they enjoy the youthful bliss that accompanies young love, but as tensions rise and secrets of their small town are revealed, both are thrown into a world that shatters their innocence. The characters are human, teaching us that even someone who does wrong is not all bad, and Kimani writes with such vivid detail that one can easily visualize the vast scenery. VERDICT Reminiscent of Iman Verjee's Who Will Catch Us as We Fall, this novel will appeal to readers of historical and literary fiction.—Ashanti White, Fayetteville, NC
African colonialism is confronted in this subtle, multilayered Kenyan tale.A "massive, snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra's, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna": it's 1901, and the first train has arrived in Kenya's Rift Valley from the port of Mombasa. This is how Kimani (Before the Rooster Crows, 2004) opens this lyrical and powerful historical novel about his homeland. It's primarily the story of three men: the Master, Ian Edward McDonald, the Brit who built the railroad; Richard Turnbull, a preacher and friend of McDonald's; and Babu Salim, an Indian who helped build the railroad. Babu is also the grandfather of Rajan, a talented musician who now sings his songs in the Jakaranda Hotel, near where the railroad ends. Once a majestic monument to love that McDonald built for his wife, Sally, it fell to ruin—a "veritable heart of darkness"— after she refused to live there, disgusted when she saw how McDonald brutalized the workers and servants. Through a series of flashbacks the lives of these three men "run parallel to each other for decades," finally coming together and unraveling in a "momentary clash" in the 1960s when Rajan is suddenly kissed in the dark hotel by a mysterious woman who then disappears. His obsession with her finally ends when he sees her on the dance floor and brings her onstage. Rajan and Mariam quickly develop a relationship; when he brings her to meet his elderly grandparents, she utters something to Babu, unleashing an unexplained curse dealing with ages-old illegitimacy and infidelity upon the family. Kimani weaves together a bitter, hurtful past and hopeful present in this rich tale of Kenyan history and culture, the railroad, and the men and women whose lives it profoundly affected. Despite an overly complex and loose narrative, this is a thoughtful story about a country's imperialist past.
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Read an Excerpt
Dance of the Jakaranda
By Peter Kimani
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2017 Peter Kimani
All rights reserved.
In that year, the glowworms in the marshes were replaced by lightbulbs, villagers were roused out of their hamlets by a massive rumbling that many mistook for seismic shifts of the earth. These were not uncommon occurrences — locals experienced earthquakes across the Rift Valley so often they even had an explanation for it. They said it was God taking a walk in His universe. They believed this without needing to see it, but on that day the villagers saw the source of the noise as well. It was a monstrous, snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra's, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna, coughing spasmodically as it emitted blue- black smoke. The villagers clasped their hands and wailed: Yu Mini! Come and see the strips of iron that those strange men planted seasons earlier — which, left undisturbed, had grown into a monster gliding through the land.
The gigantic snake was a train and the year was 1901, an age when white men were still discovering the world for their kings and queens in faraway lands. So when the railway superintendent, or simply Master as he was known to many, peered out the window of his first-class cabin that misty morning, his mind did not register the dazzled villagers who dropped their hoes and took off, or led their herds away from the grazing fields in sheer terror of the strange creature cutting through their land. Neither did Master share in the tamasha booming from across the coaches where British, Indian, and African workers — all in their respective compartments — were celebrating the train's maiden voyage. Instead, Master was absorbed by the landscape that looked remarkably different from how he remembered it from his previous trip.
The mass of water appeared to have grown from a pond into a large lake. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him; or maybe after crawling through that very same land on either donkey or zebra, his lofty perch on the train now afforded him a very different view. To the left, a spring spewed hot water, the vapor casting clouds of woolly nothingness above it. One of these should be named for Sally, Master thought — the idea eliciting a mélange of soreness and softness that always came with the memories of his English wife, now estranged for four years. She was the reason he was looking forward to returning to England. A ship was waiting at the port of Mombasa, some five hundred miles away, where the rail construction had begun. The railroad tracks ended at the head of what he had named Port Victoria, memorializing the lake there with the same name, in honor of the Queen of England. So the rail that started by the shores of the Indian Ocean now cut through the hinterland to the shores of Lake Victoria. This was the mission that had brought him to the British East Africa Protectorate, and it had now been accomplished. He had been discharged with full honor, the cable from London said, echoing the military jargon that had regulated his life for twenty-three years. The cable also said a letter with full details of his release had been dispatched on SS Britannia, the vessel that would then deliver him home to England. Master suppressed a smile at the thought, and further subverted the thought by pretending to scratch his pate, whose receding hairline merged with his forehead to form what looked like a small crater.
"Happy are the pure at heart," Reverend Richard Turnbull, sitting beside Master, said over the rattling sounds of the train: Kukuru-kakara, kukuru-kakara. They held different sections of the shiny pole that served as passenger support, as though they were experienced pole dancers, though their bums never touched.
Master nodded and smiled ruefully but said nothing, retreating to the cemetery of his mind where memories unfurled. He wanted to absorb as much as he could from the land, a sudden burst of emotion clogging his throat. It was hard to imagine the space they were gliding through with such swiftness had been a blistering crawl that had taken them four years to complete. Four years in the wilderness. What had partly kept him going was the anticipation of the triumphant maiden ride. That moment had finally arrived, but Master felt somewhat deflated, the memories of his difficult past keeping him from fully enjoying the celebrations.
As if reading his mind, Reverend Turnbull bellowed, "Rejoice!" as the train approached a new township, which, like many other settlements they had encountered, seemed to have sprouted up out of the steps of the train station. On either side of the compartment, Indian and African workers, traveling in second and third class, made music from anything they could lay their hands on, rattling bottles with spoons, clapping, ululating. The walls that separated the different races were still up, just as they had been through the years of construction. The different racial groups, Master had written in one of his dispatches to London, remained separate like the rail tracks. Yet the rail was the product of their collective efforts — of black and brown and white hands.
The African and Indian workers on the train danced jubilantly and Reverend Turnbull joined them, nodding his head and waving excitedly. But Master remained unmoved through the razzmatazz. Still unable to savor the moment, he was still distracted, lost in his thoughts. He found it strange that he was starting to miss the land before even leaving it. He had anticipated this moment for four years, but now that it had come, the longing that he'd harbored fizzled into knots of anxiety — not just about the future and Sally's place in his scheme of things, but also about the present that would soon become the past.
Trying to rid himself of his anxiety, Master glanced outside. "That's where we left that Indian bastard," he said to Reverend Turnbull, his forefinger arching into a crooked arrow that pointed to a spot where rows of mud-and-wattle rondavels stood. The walls were plastered with white clay and the shingles on the roofs were aligned neatly, like rows of corn.
"The runaway father?"
"Yes, the f — the bastard," Master replied, checking himself just in time before cursing in front of a man of God.
"We have all come short of the glory of God," Reverend Turnbull said quietly, glancing outside, the rondavels almost out of sight. "I'm glad I took the baby into my care."
"Was our suspicion borne out?"
"That it was his child?"
Reverend Turnbull shook his head quietly.
Master turned to face him. "What does that mean?" "No."
"What do you mean?"
"That's a secret only known to the child's mother."
Master opened his mouth, then sighed and shrugged. "Was the child Indian or Caucasian?"
"What's the difference?"
"Hair? Nose? I thought it was pretty obvious ..."
"Nothing in life is that obvious."
"So, are you confirming the child was Indian or Caucasian?"
"What does it matter?"
Master opened his mouth, flashed a wan smile. "Because ..."
"What's done is done," Reverend Turnbull said. "I'm now the girl's father. I will raise her as my own."
Master opened his mouth again but kept quiet. He had burdened the man of God with enough secrets.
Both men returned to gazing out the window. Their arms were tangled around the shiny pole and their faces nearly touched as they craned their necks to peek outside — their bums still as far from each other as possible — stretched out at awkward angles so that they resembled ducks. The lake was almost out of view, only a sliver of light visible where it stood, and the clouds above the hot water spring appeared to have shifted.
"Reverend," Master said, facing him, "I know your Bible says heaven is somewhere else, but I think it must be close by."
Reverend Turnbull smiled, loosened his collar, and responded, "I'm afraid so."
"Why are you afraid?"
"Because God shouldn't live so close to heathens."
Excerpted from Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani. Copyright © 2017 Peter Kimani. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Kimani is a leading African writer of his generation. Born in 1971 in Kenya, he started his career as a journalist and has published several works of fiction and poetry. He was one of only three international poets commissioned by National Public Radio to compose and present a poem to mark Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009. Kimani earned his doctorate in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program in 2014, and is a faculty member at Aga Khan University's Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi. Dance of the Jakaranda is his third novel.
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