So you want to write something about the history of your country? Do you write a dry, turgid reference book that not many people would read unless they are passionate about the subject? Or do you write an engaging, colourful, humorous yet truthful novel to really get your points across and reach a potentially wider audience? If you’re Peter Kimani you do the latter and you do it very well.
Dance of the Jacaranda tells the story of Kenya, its independence and the struggles that accompanied it, through the stories and lives of several of the men involved with the construction of a railway line, which would offer a link between Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. The stories traverse the decades and examine Kenya’s pre and post colonialism. It is an historical story full of factual and imaginary events without losing sight of the more contemporary with the character of Rajan’s. There is satire and humour a plenty. The attitudes of the age may not come across as politically correct today particularly where women are concerned but adds some substance to the story when taken in context. It’s culturally rich and one gets a strong sense of the African tradition of storytelling to illustrate points.
It seems to be a year in which Africa features most prominently in some of the fiction around at the moment. I am thinking of Jean McNeil’s Fire on the Mountain, Phil Whitaker’s Sister Sebastian’s Library and Stephan Collishaw’s A Child Called Happiness. Very diverse as you might expect from such a huge continent and from such different writers but this story is a wonderful way to entertain and educate the willing reader.
I would not wish to spoil the experience of this story by offering too many details about this book but I found much of it fascinating not merely from the historical unfolding of Kenya’s history of which I was ignorant but also the structure of the novel which spins its characters in circles chronologically and offers what seem to be African tales of legend and folklore. The dignity and grace of a people shine though these pages and surely this writer must truly love his country.
This could have been a bleak tale, colonialism and race relations are not necessarily subjects to fill any heart with joy but Kimani ensures his narrative works on a number of levels, spiritual, familial, constitutional, subversive even and imbibes it all with just the right amount of light heartedness without overshadowing some of the more sombre aspects.
I won’t say it was an easy book to read. Much rereading and referring back was necessary but some things are worth persevering with to an ultimately satisfying conclusion. This is a work of quality, beautifully written with an elegant prose style that meanders towards the poetic. The rhythm and vibrancy of Africa dominate. And rightly so.