Dustby Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
A Washington Post Notable Book
When a young man is gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, his grief-stricken father and sister bring his body back to their crumbling home in the Kenyan drylands. But the murder has stirred up memories long since buried, precipitating a series of events no one could have foreseen. As the truth unfolds, we come to/b>/i>
A Washington Post Notable Book
When a young man is gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, his grief-stricken father and sister bring his body back to their crumbling home in the Kenyan drylands. But the murder has stirred up memories long since buried, precipitating a series of events no one could have foreseen. As the truth unfolds, we come to learn the secrets held by this parched landscape, hidden deep within the shared past of a family and their conflicted nation. Spanning Kenya’s turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Dust is spellbinding debut from a breathtaking new voice in literature.
This evocative debut historical novel of Kenya tracks the slow unraveling of the Oganda family after the murder of beloved son Odidi at the hands of Nairobi’s finest. Before he can be buried, Odidi’s devastated mother takes flight, leaving her picturesque home in a remote northern province. Meanwhile, Odidi’s grieving sister, Arabel Ajani, must confront the Ogandas’ demons. Caine Prize–winner Owuor’s prose, though sometimes too sentimental, is both quixotic and archly descriptive. And while the author may spill a great deal of ink exploring her protagonist’s consuming passions and “the kernel of all their deepest yearnings,” her writing is exceptionally chiseled and achieves a poetic dimension. Odidi had an “addiction to water songs—a liturgy of flowing, bubbliness. Even the camels listened to him. Rock-drill laughter, excavating terror; salt in soup; no sugar in tea made from rangeland herbs.” The author is as at ease evoking the mystical, inflamed Ogandas and the magical Northern Frontier District as she is deconstructing a family of British expatriates, the Boltons, whose destiny intersects with Odidi’s. “The country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it, and then it gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.” There is hardly any aspect of Kenya that Owuor seems unable to tackle with her unique flair in this masterfully executed novel, from the mid–20th century’s Mau Mau rebellion and its aftermath to the stirring personal destinies of her sundry cast of characters. (Jan.)
A brutal death in Nairobi prompts a reunion of the victim's family and unlocks a host of troubling memories. The center of Owuor's moody debut novel is Ajany, a young woman who returns to her family's northern Kenya homestead from Brazil after learning that her brother Odidi has been gunned down in the midst of post-election violence. (The novel is set in 2007, when the turmoil there left hundreds in the country dead and tens of thousands displaced.) As their father and estranged mother reconvene in Wuoth Ogik ("the journey ends"), their efforts to mourn in peace are soon upended. Chief among the disruptions is Isaiah, an Englishman whose father's books fill the house in Kenya. Both he and Ajany's father provide an opportunity for Owuor to explore the previous generations' violence in the country, which she evokes in harrowing detail (family members' military adventures in Burma in particular). But the novel's strength is in the present, particularly as Ajany travels to Nairobi to uncover the circumstances behind Odidi's murder. And there, Owuor explores how layers of corruption threaten to overwhelm the sense of social justice among its citizens and how Westerners oversimplify the country's predicament. Ajany's character might be more effective were her back history in Brazil less sketchy, but Owuor intentionally keeps the novel's tone impressionistic and indirect. Though that can make it harder to keep the plot lines straight, the prose has an appealingly rough-hewn poetry, built on clipped sentences and brush-stroke evocations of the dry landscape. ("The Kalacha dusk will soon descend in colors borrowed from another country's autumn.") Owuor, the 2003 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, has style to spare, which more than compensates for the looseness of the narrative.
“Astonishing. . . . In this remarkable novel is a brave, healing voice. . . . Owuor demonstrates extraordinary talent. . . . Let the sensuous language of Dust wash over you.” —The Washington Post
“[Dust] brings Kenya to life. . . . Owuor channels Faulkner or a certain kind of Pynchon. . . . Poetic.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] unforgettable book, full of love and full of pain. . . . This is the novel my twenty-first century has been waiting for, for our world in these seismic times.” —Binyavanga Wainaina, author of One Day I Will Write About This Place
“Dust anchors Owuor as the rightful heir to Kenya’s greatest novelist: Ngugi wa Thiong’o. . . . A dazzling narrative, Faulknerian in many ways. . . . The rewards are significant, especially [the] unforgettable characters. . . . [Readers] are rewarded with a genuine sense of fulfillment. Owuor’s is a new voice from the African continent—distinct, rich, unflappable in her convictions. . . . Amazing.” —CounterPunch
“Owuor dives back into Kenya’s history as far as the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. . . . Challenging . . . but the reader is repaid with scenes of strange, horror-stricken beauty.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A chilling portrait of Kenya that’s brimming with pain and promise. . . . Owuor is taking her place in Kenya’s long line of outstanding writers. . . . Brilliant.” —Essence magazine
“[Owuor’s] prose can be inventive, even breathtaking, turning phrases or fusing unexpected words in ways that confound and inspire. . . . The next step in what I anticipate to be a prodigious career.” —Colin Dwyer, NPR
“There is hardly any aspect of Kenya that Owuor seems unable to tackle with her unique flair in this masterfully executed novel, from the mid–20th century’s Mau Mau rebellion and its aftermath to the stirring personal destinies of her sundry cast of characters. . . . Her writing is exceptionally chiseled and achieves a poetic dimension.” —Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)
“Owuor’s prose dances along the page with grace and elegance.” —The Toronto Star
“[Owuor] has style to spare. . . . [Her] prose has an appealingly rough-hewn poetry, built on clipped sentences and brush-stroke evocations of the dry landscape.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Powerful . . . [Dust] will evoke references to William Boyd and even to Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. . . . [An] important addition to the literature of contemporary Africa.” —Booklist
“This stunning debut novel grabs the reader’s heart, refusing to let go. . . . Unforgettable characters and universal themes will speak to all readers who seek truth and beauty in their literature. . . . [Owuor is a] shining talent among Africa’s writers.” —Library Journal (starred review)
From the moment Odidi Oganda is gunned down on a Nairobi street, this stunning debut novel by the Caine Prize- winning Owuor grabs the reader's heart, refusing to let go. Blending short, staccato bursts of words with long, sensuous, prose passages, Owuor lays bare the tumultuous history of Kenya through the lives of Odidi's parents, Nyipir and Akai-ma, and his beloved sister, Ajany. Home from a self-imposed exile in Brazil, fueled by the madness of her grief, Ajany attempts to resuscitate Odidi by reconstructing the last ten years of his life. In doing so, her path crosses that of an equally despairing Englishman, Isaiah Bolton, wandering through Kenya in search of a father he's never known but whose name, Hugh Bolton, resonates with the Ogandas. Their families' secrets mimic those of the citizens of Kenya, whose lives are torn apart by repression and torture. Each fully formed character in this relentlessly sorrowful novel evinces a palpable longing for connection, and as the past unfolds, understanding evolves, anger dissipates, and tears of anguish and relief water the dusty land. VERDICT Owuor represents another shining talent among Africa's young writers publishing in English. This searing novel, though informed by her Kenyan roots, should not be pigeonholed. These unforgettable characters and universal themes will speak to all readers who seek truth and beauty in their literature.—Sally Bissell, Fort Myers, FL
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
Massive purple clouds rush in from the eastern coast. Ambushed by a warm wind in Nairobi, they scatter, a routed guerrilla force. At Wilson Airport, a qhat-carrying eight-seater plane weaves its way off the apron. The last small plane out of Nairobi without top-level permission for the next week. Above the airport din, egrets circle and ibises cry ngangan- ganga. Father, daughter, and son are going home.
Dusk is Odidi’s time. In the contours of old pasts, Ajany retrieves an image: She is sitting on a black-gray rock, spying on the sun’s descent with Odidi. Leaning into his shoulder, trying to read the world as he does, she stammers, “Where’s it going?” He says, “Descending into hell,” and cackles. She had only just learned the Apostles’ Creed.
The plane lifts off.
The coffin and its keepers are nestled amid bales of green herbs.
Straight-backed, stern, silences reordered, Nyipir is a chiseled stone icon again, an archetypal Nilotic male. But there are deep furrows on his forehead. She can paint these, too. Trail markers into absence. Ajany had once believed Baba was omnipotent, like God, ever since he had invoked a black leopard to hunt down the mean and red-eyed inhabit- ants of her nightmares.
Nyipir asks, “Cold?”
Baba’s baritone, Odidi’s echo. Dimpled handsomeness. The Oganda men were gifted with soft-edged, rumbling voices.
Ajany turns. The light of the sky bounces on her thin face, all bones and angles. Fresh bloodstains on her sleeves. The frills of her orange skirt are soiled. She is tinier than Nyipir remembers. But she had always been such a small, stuttering thing, all big hair and large eyes. More shadow than person, head slanted as if waiting for answers to ancient riddles. He clears his throat. From the gloom of his soul, Nyipir growls, “Mama . . . er . . . she wanted to . . . uh . . . come to meet you.”
Ajany hears the lie. Sucks it in, as if it were venom, sketches invis- ible circles on the window. Stares at the green of coffee and pineapple plantations below.
“Yes,” Nyipir says to himself, already lost, already afraid. He shifts. The dying had started long ago. Long before the murder of prophets named Pio, Tom, Argwings, Ronald, Kungu, Josiah, Ouko, Mbae. The others, the “disappeared unknown.” National doors slammed over vaults of secrets. Soon the wise chose cowardice, a way of life: not hearing, not seeing, never asking, because sound, like dreams, could cause death. Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder. In time neighborhood kai-apple fences were urged into thicker and higher growth to shut out the dread-filled nation. But some of the lost, the unseen and unheard, cut tracks into Nyipir’s sleep. They stared at him in silence until the day his disordered dreams stepped into daylight with him to become his life:
They had pointed a gun to his head.
Click, click, click.
He had fallen to the ground, slithered on his belly like a snake, hissed, and vomited, because he had forgotten how to talk.
Sweat on palms, heartbeat quickening, Nyipir swallows. A groan.
Ajany hears a father’s leaching anguish. She scratches an ache where it itches her skin, gropes inside-places as a tongue probing cavities does. Expecting to be stung.
The past’s beckon is persistent.
From the air, Nyipir peers down at an expanding abyss. His country, his home, is ripping itself apart. Stillborn ballot revolution. These 2007 elections were supposed to be simple, the next small jump into a light-filled Kenyan future. Everything had instead disintegrated into a single, unending howl by the nation’s unrequited dead. This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises. Nyipir watches, arm- pits damp. A view of ground-lit smoke. Dry lips. His people had never set their nation on fire before.
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 presi- dent of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out-of-control national grieving.
Nyipir turns from the window.
He is flying home with his children.
Yet he is alone. Memories are solitary ghosts.
He lets them in, traveling with them.
Meet the Author
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya. Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, she has also received an Iowa Writers’ Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications, and she has been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and a Lannan Foundation resident. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.
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