Reviews > Published on January 27th, 2014

Bookshots: 'Dust' by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review



Who wrote it:

A strong cultural backbone and passionate voice make Owuor’s novel of death and family in Africa a thought-provoking read.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kenyan screenwriter and winner of the Caine Prize for African writing.

Plot in a Box:

A young woman named Ajany returns to her homeland in Kenya to investigate the circumstances surrounding her brother's murder.

Invent a new title for this book:

Maybe Desert Ghost. I have to say, just about anything would be more intriguing than Dust.

Read this if you like:

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Meet the book's lead:

Dust is less about a single person than a group of interconnected individuals, but the focus falls mainly on Ajany Oganda.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

For Ajany, I would choose Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave.

Setting: Would you want to live here?

The violent political climate prompts me to say no, however, parts of Owuor’s Kenya are still starkly beautiful.

What was your favorite sentence?

In the contours of old pasts, she retrieves an image: Ajany and Odidi sitting on a rock, spying on the sun's descent. She is leaning against Odidi's broad shoulder, pretending she could read the world as he did. She stammered, 'Where's it going?' He said, 'To hell.'

The Verdict:

Dust is a novel of conflict; both in the narrative and in the prose itself. Sometimes lucid and piercing, sometimes merely chaotic, Owuor sketches a country in the midst of great turbulence with writing that is lush but choppy. Intriguing visuals are combined with a jarring sense of perspective, occasionally making it difficult to disentangle what is happening from scene to scene.

For example, there are a lot of moments like this: “Nyipir turns from the window. He is flying home with his children. Yet he is alone. Memories are solitary ghosts: Down-country.”

Along this vein, Dust has a poetic, indirect structure that can be simultaneously appealing and frustrating. Characters bounce in and out with little to no introduction, and the plot never truly coheres into a solid form. One minute Odidi and Ajany are in school, the next, they’re off married and living in Brazil, respectively. Why? Whether it’s by the author’s design or not, never expect absolute transparency here. Odidi’s demise is particularly difficult to follow; he straddles death and life for almost a chapter, never quite identifying his killer or their motivation.

The story is less driven by individual growth than it is by the character of an entire country. Owuor’s lyrical observations on Kenyan life— from passing details on the landscape, to complex political issues—are some of the most memorable moments of Dust. The coffee and pineapple plantations, ibises and machine gun chatter; Owuor’s Kenya is a potent mixture of natural beauty and the kind of extreme ugliness that only follows war. Folklore and superstition are mingled throughout the story, adding yet another layer of cultural intricacies to an already irascible and convoluted equation.

Dust is not a perfect novel, but it is a powerful one. While those in search of a tightly woven page-turner would do better to look elsewhere, a strong cultural backbone and passionate voice make Owuor’s novel of death and family in Africa a thought-provoking read, at the very least.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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