Monday, June 11, 2018

Kenya: The Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani

The Jakaranda Hotel of this novel is located at Nakuru, where the expatriate British, McDonald, had settled after arriving in Kenya to supervise the building of the railway from Mombasa on the coast, to the other side of the country, at the beginning of the twentieth century. McDonald's wife, Sally, had arrived at the house that he built for her and promptly left again.

In 1963, as Kenya is gaining its independence from Britain, Rajan, the lead singer in the hotel's resident band, is kissed by a mysterious woman in a dark corridor. He is unable to forget her. This novel unravels his story, and that of the woman, and their shared history, along with McDonald, the missionary Rev Richard Turnbull, and Rajan's grandparents Babu and Fatima, who had come to Kenya from the Punjab along with many other Indian labourers to work on the railway.

This is an epic story which is not just a family saga but reveals the unfolding story of the birth of Kenya as an independent nation. I found it compelling reading, with richly drawn characters and a fascinating setting. There was just one little niggle lurking in the background - I couldn't make sense of the timeline. There seemed to be some faulty arithmetic at work. If Rajan's father, Rashid, was born around 1903 as was described, and left Kenya at the age of eighteen - or not much more - to live in Britain, having fathered Rajan before he left - then Rajan couldn't be as young as he was supposed to be in 1963. And there were other anachronisms - the chief of which was the description of Babu having a "black polythene bag" - also around 1903, long before the invention of polythene. Or was it a figure of speech? It wasn't quite clear. These concerns weren't intrusive, for the most part, but did have me putting down the book to go and fact check from time to time.

This railway still exists today - I found a fascinating account of a journey on the railway at this website.

Peter Kimani is an award winning Kenyan novelist. He teaches journalism in Nairobi, and is a Visiting Writer at Amherst College in the United States.

The Dance of the Jakaranda was published in the United Kingdom in 2018 by Telegram under license from Akashic Books, New York

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