Category: Historical Fiction
Synopsis (Goodreads): Set in the shadow of Kenya’s independence from Great Britain, Dance of the Jakaranda reimagines the special circumstances that brought black, brown and white men together to lay the railroad that heralded the birth of the nation.
The novel traces the lives and loves of three men–preacher Richard Turnbull, the colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and Indian technician Babu Salim–whose lives intersect when they are implicated in the controversial birth of a child. Years later, when Babu’s grandson Rajan–who ekes out a living by singing Babu’s epic tales of the railway’s construction–accidentally kisses a mysterious stranger in a dark nightclub, the encounter provides the spark to illuminate the three men’s shared, murky past.
One evening this week, I was blessed to be able to spend a couple of hours in conversation with Peter Kimani, author of Dance of the Jakaranda, and John Sibi-Okumu, narrator of the audiobook version (himself a notable playwright). This was the second time I was meeting Kimani, the first being at Kenya National Theatre where he spoke about Dance of the Jakaranda, but in a larger and more formal setting. When I first listened to him speak, I had not yet read Dance of the Jakaranda, but his words as a thinker and a writer inspired me to approach him about attending our book club and of course, to read the book.
It was that wonderful, interesting sort of conversation that stays with you long after you walk away, and from which you emerge generally re-energised. We live in a world in which honest, open conversation is becoming increasingly rare and uncomfortable truths often tend to be swept under the carpet, with topics of conversation generally centred around gossip or the mundane.
The discussion, inspired by our reactions and thoughts about Dance of the Jakaranda, meandered from whether Kimani’s characters were based on any particular historical figures, to the varied reactions the book received from international and local audiences, to the nature of the writing process. The less enthusiastic response to the book locally was attributed to a number of reasons, from its supposed stereotypical treatment of the white man in Africa to the fact that there was too much sex in the book. The latter reason definitely had me puzzled given there is hardly any swearing in the book (I think Kimani used the F-word once) and while much is alluded to, there is nothing remotely explicit in the descriptions anywhere in the book. But also, as the author himself put it, how can you have a book about the birth of a nation without sex?
I rated the book four stars, instead of five, which was motivated by two factors – firstly, I felt like it ended too suddenly, and secondly, I would have loved for the female characters like Fatima to have had more of a voice. I respect and understand when Kimani pointed out that he was trying to be historically accurate and the colonial era being written about was not one in which women really featured, but that nonetheless, the role of the women in his story, such as Sally or Fatima, while subtle was still pivotal…but still!
Overall, Dance of the Jakaranda was a well-written tale of a country that emerges from the shadows of colonial rule, vividly told through a cast of memorable characters such as Babu, Ian McDonald, Fatima, Rajan, Reverend Turnbull, and the butcher Gathenji. The building of the railway provides an ideal backdrop to a story subtly and effortlessly told that weaves together a host of cultural, political, emotional and familial elements. I would recommend this as a key work of historical fiction and cultural insight that should be read by anyone who wants to understand how the interaction between the native black, the Indian, and the white communities all contributed to the making of Kenya. Furthermore, like many other great works of fiction, messages and themes from the story are prescient, as applicable today with the controversies surrounding the new Chinese-built SGR as they were during the building of the original “Lunatic Express”.
The train was a beast whose belly would require communal feeding for an eternity, accurately presaging the years of colonialism that lay ahead.