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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Knopf, $25.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-307-96120-4

This evocative debut historical novel of Kenya tracks the slow unraveling of the Oganda family after the murder of beloved son Odidi at the hands of Nairobi’s finest. Before he can be buried, Odidi’s devastated mother takes flight, leaving her picturesque home in a remote northern province. Meanwhile, Odidi’s grieving sister, Arabel Ajani, must confront the Ogandas’ demons. Caine Prize–winner Owuor’s prose, though sometimes too sentimental, is both quixotic and archly descriptive. And while the author may spill a great deal of ink exploring her protagonist’s consuming passions and “the kernel of all their deepest yearnings,” her writing is exceptionally chiseled and achieves a poetic dimension. Odidi had an “addiction to water songs—a liturgy of flowing, bubbliness. Even the camels listened to him. Rock-drill laughter, excavating terror; salt in soup; no sugar in tea made from rangeland herbs.” The author is as at ease evoking the mystical, inflamed Ogandas and the magical Northern Frontier District as she is deconstructing a family of British expatriates, the Boltons, whose destiny intersects with Odidi’s. “The country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it, and then it gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.” There is hardly any aspect of Kenya that Owuor seems unable to tackle with her unique flair in this masterfully executed novel, from the mid–20th century’s Mau Mau rebellion and its aftermath to the stirring personal destinies of her sundry cast of characters. (Jan.)