Book Review: Dance of the Jakaranda

Dance of the Jakaranda

Peter Kimani

Release Date: February 7th, 2017

A mysterious nightclub kiss unravels an important account of Indian railway workers and English leaders in colonial Kenya.

Akashic Books

Akashic Books

Historical Fiction

342 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96

   “How could a man leave his own land to tame another’s? Did it not make more sense, and require much less energy, to simply conform and flow with nature?”

   When Rajan—an Indian man in the midst of Kenya’s burgeoning independence—kisses an unseen stranger, his quest to find her unlocks a complex wave of family revelations, racial politics and historical events. This far-reaching novel travels back in time to follow an English preacher, a colonial administrator and a rebellious Indian railroad worker as they navigate the complex systems of power, culture and resistance in colonial Kenya. Through lyrical, seductive prose, Peter Kimani weaves an impressively intricate tapestry of events and characters that give much-needed names and faces to an important facet of Kenya’s colonial history.

   A burgeoning railroad stands at the epicenter of the drama; a metaphor for the kinds of destruction and transformation brought on by the English colonial machine. Thousands of Indians were brought to Kenya to build this railroad, and they straddled the lines between immersing in African culture, fraternizing with English administrators and maintaining loyalty to their own Indian heritage. The Jakaranda—the novel’s namesake—is also an important monument in the characters’ lives. Once a failed gift to a colonial administrator’s wife, it turns into a nightclub where people of all races can interact—a rare feat in Kenya’s then-fragmented, highly racialized society. The Jakaranda stands as a metaphor for the kinds of conflicts and cultural tensions that Kenyans faced while trying to engender a new, unified nation.

    All at once a love story, a family tale and a balanced historical account. Dance of the Jakaranda is a lovely testament to history’s profound impact on the present. Kimani’s writing is steeped in the African oral storytelling tradition. Shirking a linear or more traditional plot, the story is filled with asides and flashbacks, reminders and metaphors. Despite some unnecessary meandering and a less-than-balanced portrayal of women, Kimani crafts an authentic and immersive geographic and cultural landscape.

     This book is perfect for anyone interested in learning about Kenyan history and culture. It is similar to other colonial/post-colonial novels, like Tierno Monénembo’s The King of Kahel and Ahmadou Kourouma’s The Suns of Independence. Specifically, Kimani’s unique focus on Indians adjusting to new lives in Africa is an excellent meditation on the grueling struggles of all immigrants and settlers into new worlds. Kimani waxes poetically about Indian-Kenyan’s tremendous contributions to the nation. Perhaps this is this novel’s greatest strength—its nuanced and compassionate portrayal of Indians in Kenya. In his American debut, Kimani has achieved a very important accomplishment: introducing a wider audience to Kenya’s lesser-known Indian population and to its strikingly elaborate colonial history.