cover image Dance of the Jakaranda

Dance of the Jakaranda

Peter Kimani. Akashic, $15.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61775-496-8

In his American debut, Kimani illustrates the discordant history of East Indians in Kenya through a fabulously complicated set of intriguing characters and events. One balmy night in 1963, a musician named Rajan is transfixed by the kiss of an ambiguously ethnic woman named Mariam, whose ethnicity seems ambiguous (Rajan himself is East Indian). He takes her home to his grandfather Babu, a meeting that “transcended any explanation other than fate.” Babu, it turns out, was a Punjabi laborer who first arrived in Mombasa in 1897 to build the railroad that “slithered down the savanna” under the direction of Mariam’s illegitimate English grandfather, commissioner McDonald. After a misunderstanding between the two men blossoms “into a grudge that would last a lifetime,” an intricate set of events comes to fruition with Rajan and Mariam’s relationship. The joy of Kimani’s storytelling is only rarely hampered by the unwieldiness of his plot; he alternates between the colonial past and the “season of anomie” that begins when an edict from the Big Man, who rules the newly independent Kenya and threatens “foreign nationals” (those whose heritage was English or East Indian) such as Rajan with deportation. Rajan’s understanding of himself as “a brown man in a black world which had been placed under white rule” fractures as surely as the nation itself does, sent reeling in the face of a “past that had finally caught up with the present to complicate the future.” Highlighted by its exquisite voice, Kimani’s novel is a standout debut. (Feb.)