Review: ‘Dust,’ by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

This winter offers an unusually rich bounty of novels about Africa. “Radiance of Tomorrow,” Ishmael Beah’s gracious story of rebuilding a village in Sierra Leone, was just the beginning. Next week, Susan Minot will publish “Thirty Girls,” which is about a Ugandan teenager kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army; next month, we’ll get Teju Cole’s “Every Day Is for the Thief,” which focuses on a Ni­ger­ian American who returns to Lagos. And now we have an astonishing novel from Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Tantalizing excerpts of “Dust” appeared earlier in a couple of literary journals, but few American readers have heard of this 45-year-old author before now. That must change. Owuor demonstrates extraordinary talent and range in these pages. Her style is alternately impressionistic and harsh, incantatory and propulsive. One moment, she keeps us trapped within the bloodied walls of a torture cell; in the next, her poetic voice soars over sun-baked plains. She can clear the gloom with passages of Dickensian comedy or tender romance, but most of her novel takes places in “haunted silences.” “Dust” moves between the lamentation of a single family and the corruption of national politics, swirling around one young man’s death to create a vortex of grief that draws in generations of deceit and Kenya’s tumultuous modern history.

The story opens in 2007 with a panicked chase through the streets of Nairobi: An athletic young man named Odidi hurls an AK-47 aside and runs from a howling mob. His anxious thoughts of escape mingle with snatches of memory and dialogue, a hallucinatory sequence of violent and comic moments that we won’t fully comprehend for more than 300 pages. Then suddenly the narrative shatters into short phrases:

“What’s happening to me?

“A voice says, ‘Close your eyes, boy. Go to sleep.’

“Odidi coughs three times.

“Red bubbles spatter.

“The voice says, ‘I’m here.’

“Odidi breathes in.

“Doesn’t breathe out.

“Becomes still.”

The rest of the novel records the shock waves from Odidi’s death that vibrate through his family, scrambling his mother’s sanity and dislodging long-concealed secrets. “Sorrow is a universe,” Owuor writes, and “Dust” is a sweeping exploration of that vast expanse of darkness. Odidi’s parents had invested all their hopes in their handsome only son, who dazzled his engineering professors and seemed destined for wealth and power in a country hurtling into the modern age. How all his talent and idealism came to seep out through bullet holes as he lay on a busy Nairobi street is only one of many mysteries explored in this engrossing story.

Odidi’s father — “old-world dapper in a slightly shabby 1970s coat and 1950s brown leather fedora” — never speaks of his early incarnations as a thief, gunrunner, rebel and patriot, but digging a grave for his son unearths a host of buried alliances and debts. And the novel’s plot turns on the coincidental arrival of a young Englishman seeking information about his own father, who once had great hopes for the British colony. These and other story lines involving corrupt officers, idealistic fighters, abandoned lovers and angry ghosts consort in a potent novel that frequently jumps into the past as Odidi’s coffin bakes in the sun.

His sister, Ajany, serves as the story’s moral core. An artist who had moved to Brazil, Ajany returns to help bury her brother but immediately feels disoriented by the political chaos that seems so disconnected from her own devastation. She has arrived “on a day when distorted election results will set a bucolic country afire,” Owuor writes. “The outside world is drenched with human noises of accusations and counteraccusations, election rigging, and the miracle of mathematical votes that multiply and divide themselves. But within their world, in a self-contained, haunted compound with its lone, misshapen grevillea tree, upon which a purple-blue bird tweets, and where death prowls at half past three, Ajany bends forward to listen to and for her brother, Odidi, whose story-words had created vessels that always carried her into safe border.”

She’s a bewitching character, hypersensitive to the colors and shapes around her but driven to distraction by her insatiable mourning. When her mother abandons the house and her father starts scratching the ground, Ajany strikes out for Nairobi in a desperate effort to investigate her brother’s murder. Answers won’t come easily. As the narrator notes, Kenya’s official languages are “English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”

Despite the beauty of Owuor’s writing and the emotional intensity of her story, the stylistic and narrative challenges of “Dust” will be compounded, for Americans, by the relative obscurity of Kenya’s political history. This is an exposition-free novel, and Owuor makes no concessions to any reader’s ignorance about her country’s violent upheavals in the 1950s, its transition from British rule in the early 1960s or its troubled election in 2007. (Quick: Who ran against incumbent president Mwai Kibaki?) These events — and fictional developments predicated on them — serve as the novel’s complicated backstory about a “national economy of secrets.”

But, of course, for anyone interested, the relevant information is easy to come by. And what’s more, Owuor has constructed a book that gradually teaches you how to read it. Let the sensuous language of “Dust” wash over you with the assurance that its fragmentary scenes and allusive references will be visited again and gradually brought into clearer focus. By the time beloved Odidi is finally laid to rest, so are several mysteries that his family has harbored for decades.

“What endures?” Ajany asks again and again in this story of fathomless loss. It’s a plaintive question, answered implicitly by recurrent references to dust, the finely ground remnants of earth and spirit, stone and bone. Ajany’s father knows that “the wound won’t close till its existence is spoken aloud, but not one person dares to.” Here in this remarkable novel is a brave, healing voice.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

DUST

By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Knopf. 369 pp. $25.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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