I read Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor as part of my Read Around the World Book Club on Goodreads for the country of Kenya. This book club focuses on contemporary female authors and is fast proving to be a massive learning experience for me – with each book I see how little I know about the world I am a part of, with each book I research and feel richer for it.
Dust is epic in its Kenyan landscape, its tackling of history, the intertwined politics and in the universal themes it explores. At its heart is the story of a young man, Odidi, who is murdered by gang member in the streets of Nairobi. It isn’t clear at the beginning why this young, educated man is in such an environment nor why the murder takes place. The rest of the book then looks at his story as well as the stories of the people in his life with a focus on his father Nyipir and his beloved sister Ajany. There is also a subplot of buried bones in a cave, which are discovered by the siblings when they are children, and which interlinks cleverly with the colonial past of Kenya.
I feel I must mention that Dust divided our book club, a few of us thought it amazing (me included) but a majority didn’t finish it. The language is dense, incredibly detailed and poetic- this book is a slow read. Also, although history and politics are explored in great depth, it does assume you have knowledge of Kenya’s background and its situation today, which isn’t easy at all for a Western European/American/Canadian reader to fully understand. Furthermore, the imagery of political torture was incredibly harrowing, shocking, gut-wrenching and I can see that not everyone is able to process this. The narrative structure itself was also a problem for some, as its timeline is not linear, the plot jumps back and forth frequently. As well as this, information about the characters trickles slowly throughout the book so there is a lot to keep in your head and piece together.
Having put all that out there, here is why I think this book is
AN INCREDIBLE READ.
For me, the poetic language, the scope of imagery, the vastness of setting and time, all slotted together really well. It was a slow read, it did take a while to get used to the style and yes, I did have to read certain sections over and over again but for me what I got out of the reading experience was utterly worth it.
Adhiambo Owuor packs so many juicy, universal themes into her writing. There is the question of belonging and what a human being is willing to do to find that sense of home. Positive, life affirming actions are explored as well as some incredibly dark means. She presents the idea that belonging defines us, be it a belief, a person, a piece of land and I thought this portrayal of a vital anchor was stunning as was the overwhelming, soul destroying loneliness when you don’t belong.
There is also love. The beautiful, nurturing innocent bond between siblings. The question of whether giving birth to a child makes you a mother. The wonder of opening up in a relationship for the first time despite all the sadness and loss of the past. How love can be manipulated when it is one sided. How easy it is to hold power over someone under the disguise of love. The consuming nature of grief when you have loved.
Resilience is a further theme, which spoke loud and clear- how we as human beings have it within us to keep moving forward, to keep living despite the most difficult obstacles of the past and the present, despite even the times when death seems to be the only option left. And linked to this, Adhiambo Owuor shows us what forgiveness may look like if we choose to explore it. And also, the healing power of art within this as a way to express what words cannot.
Of course, a lot of the plot also concerns Kenya as a country. The massive problems with colonialisation by the British, both at the time and the effects into the present day. The brutality of the Mau Mau uprising. The initial hope and euphoria of a newly independent country in 1963. The stark contrast of this with growing political corruption and horrific violence. The importance of power and how quickly a democracy can slip away. Continuing ethnic tensions. Gang warfare. Poverty. The sheer vastness and beauty of the Kenyan landscape. The continued belief by Kenyans that the country can find a way forward. And there is so much more.
I shall leave you with my favourite line of the book, of an ageless mystic and goatherd called Galgalu,