Dust

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

A dense and beautiful novel, Dust is largely focused on one splintered family and how their stories are interwoven with violent events in Kenya’s post-colonial history. Owuor writes with emotional intensity, and while her language feels lush and expansive overall, much of the narrative is peppered with lyrical fragments. The rhythm of these staccato interludes can take some time to grasp, but once it becomes familiar, the story progresses smoothly, even as the cadence varies. The characters largely defy stereotypes — all are fractured in unique ways — and there are few moments that arrive with a feel of expectancy or inevitability. Dust resists being a historical record, and is instead concentrated more on personal experiences of Kenya’s politics, so it’s not a comprehensive overview of those larger events.

The prologue is a stunning opening. In it Odidi, the son of the family, is running from police through the streets of Nairobi, and after he is shot and is sprawled dying on the street, his sister’s ringtone sounds.

        Odidi savors the ringing.
        It tastes of ordinary things.
        Like presence.
        He listens.
        And listens.
        The music stops.
        No, he thinks, No, ’Jany, continue.
        The drone of a million flies now buzzing in his ear. What’ll he tell his sister? He’ll say, “The land woke up at dusk and said to itself, ‘Today I’ll be Arable Ajany.’ And the lake looked at the land that was Ajany and said, ‘Today I’ll be Odidi Ebewesit.’ That is why we roam. Because sometimes we are places, not people.” She would believe him. She always did.

His sister Ajany returns from her expatriation in Brazil, and while she is not reluctant to accompany her brother to his final rest at their childhood home in the northern drylands, it does mean confronting certain difficulties that her distance protected her from facing. “When she had left Kenya, she had imagined an amputation from its riptide of murky things. But here they were again, expecting her reply.” She is perhaps the most fragile of the characters, stuttering and unsure. Actively projecting her denial, Ajany goes to Nairobi and posts missing posters of Odidi to find who knew him and attempt to understand his demise.

Their relationship and the loss of it through Odidi’s passing is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the book, and it’s one of many in a story of wounded people. A British man appears, having been invited by Odidi, as his father disappeared in Kenya after his mother returned to England near the end of the colonial years, and this father had some connection to the Oganda family’s house. Odidi and Ajany’s mother Akai first appears scratched up, apparently self-inflicted, carrying an AK-47 which she ends up pointing directly at Ajany before disappearing for most of the book. Their father Nyipir struggles to keep things together and appears the most balanced, despite having personally experienced some of the worst of his country’s grim moments. Near the end, Nyipir thinks back to a time when he refused to forget a man’s death, even when it put his own life in danger, and how that man became his “coagulating wound”:

How it seeps, spreads, and becomes a subterranean stream of blood in Kenya, and how its tentacles reach even the newborn, and how the wound won’t close until its existence is spoken aloud, but not one person dares to.

Eventually the story resolves into acknowledgments of each character’s suffering, and we only learn certain truths when they are finally shared between people. Often long conversations at the end of novels that explain all the mysteries in one fell swoop feel structurally unsatisfying. But because Owuor established the importance in speaking aloud the existence of such pain, it portrays how healing and progress is possible, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds.