Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's Kenya is a country knit together by secrets. Each character in Dust, her debut novel, owns a share of his land's violent past, a history that longs to be forgotten. They live and love in an atmosphere of mutually agreed-upon silence, a mindset best summed up by Nyipir Oganda, a former soldier: "For the good of the country," he tells his daughter, "we know, nyara, that to name the unnameable is a curse."
This sentence becomes something of a mantra, repeated early and often in the book, and maybe this should come as no surprise: Throughout her career, Owuor has made it her project to reverse sentiments such as these. This may be her first novel, but she's spent nearly a decade in the literary limelight since her devastating story, "Weight of Whispers," won the Caine Prize in 2003. And in that time, many of her short stories have grappled with the despair that comes with keeping trauma quiet.
Dust is no different. The action opens with a death, a young man named Odidi — Nyipir's son — gunned down in the streets of Nairobi. The sudden loss is the spark that sets the plot moving, bringing his sister, Ajany, home from Brazil and robbing a mysterious English stranger of the answers he's come to Kenya seeking. These and others are the remainders that are brought into the orbit of Odidi's absence, and we watch as they struggle to grieve — and to speak the pain that they're used to leaving unspoken.
That said, it may seem strange of me to say that I wish a few of these characters had spoken less.
This novel lives in exposition, in the thoughts and memories of its many characters. The trouble is, it devotes space to the backstory of just about every one of them — no matter how minor. We get treated not only to Ajany's past and perspective, but also to those of a small-time merchant and a hapless, exiled cop — among several others. Despite playing only bit parts in the narrative, their recurring dreams and nagging insecurities interrupt the pace of the plot, bogging it down in details better left forgotten.
Every character is given such ample room to wax philosophic on lofty concepts like nothingness and the idea of Kenya that it's a struggle to actually get to know them. Ajany and her lover may "grope secrets, share unanswered questions and infinite presences," but I found it difficult to see this exchange, to feel for it, without tangible details to ground and direct me. Ajany's love and pain — like so much else in Dust -- are made distant, the mere products of abstraction.
Another part of the problem: Many of the scenes here play like high melodrama. Conversations so often feature a trembling hand or a glistening tear that, I'm sorry to say it, I found myself numbed and impatient while reading them. After a while, it would come as a surprise when a conversation did not end with a character collapsing in a fit of grief.
Despite these frustrations, though, Owuor has moments of brilliance. Her prose can be inventive, even breathtaking, turning phrases or fusing unexpected words in ways that confound and inspire. She's at her best when she directs her attention to the objects that inform her characters' lives. A hand-me-down Land Rover that's "long in tooth and loud in rattle," an Oganda family portrait, in which the family is "arranged as if facing a firing squad"; Nyipir's gun collection, which was a "progression into steelier glints, smoother mechanisms."
Tellingly, it's in tiny details like these that we get our best glimpse of a family — and a country — haunted by violence and the ghosts of colonialism. If only there had been more of these little details — and less of the brooding that so frequently crowds them out.
As a first novel, the next step in what I anticipate to be a prodigious career, Dust offers glimmers of Owuor's potential and talent. For now, though, these glimmers shine brighter in her shorter work.