Debut novel, 'Dust,' a complex, intense vision of Kenya

DUST. By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Knopf. 369 pages. $25.95.

There is a new generation of African writers in English whose work is generating buzz around the world similar to the interest in Latin American writers of the "boom" generation. With her debut novel, "Dust," Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor firmly establishes herself as a key voice in this new strand of globalized African literature.

Born in Kenya, Owuor has held prestigious fellowships in the famed Iowa Writers Workshop and with the Lannan Foundation. In 2003, she won the Caine Prize for African Writing with her short story "Weight of Whispers." Currently living in Brisbane, Australia, Owuor's global experience - like that of her contemporaries, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo or the original "Afropolitan" Taiye Selasi - has not diminished the intensity of the gaze she turns on her own nation. "Dust" exudes the harsh sounds, and powerful smells of Kenya from every page; the dazzle of the desert sky makes you almost squint as you read.

In this complex and complicated novel, part family saga, part political thriller, part historical quest narrative, Owuor zeroes in even more closely than the nation, focusing her, and our, attention on the arid landscape of Kenya's desert northwest. Remote as it may be, this inhospitable region has been integral in Kenya's colonial and post-independence history.

At the heart of the novel is Nyipir Oganda whose early life is determined by guilt and disappointment at not being able to go with his father and elder brother to Burma to serve in "King George's War." After the war, through the years of the Mau Mau rebellion leading to Kenya's independence, Nyipir assists a British colonial officer, Hugh Bolton. Bolton goes native in a big way, falling in love both with the extraordinary landscape around Lake Turkana and with a young Turkana woman, Akai-ma, with whom he has a tempestuous affair that shames her family and separates Hugh from his own wife, a much more conventional woman homesick for England.

Under shockingly violent circumstances revealed only late in the book, Akai marries Nyipir, and later becomes the object of desire for one Ali Dida Hada, who by 2008 (the present-time of the novel) has risen to the highest ranks within Kenya's rotten-to-the-core police service.

These secret-ridden relationships (and more) are gradually revealed to us via a complex achronological narrative that opens with the gunning-down of Nyipir's son Odidi on the streets of Nairobi in the aftermath of the interethnic bloodletting that followed Kenya's general election at the end of 2007. Odidi's blood on the tarmac is compared to "rust eating into national hopes," and the novel as a whole is a poignant insider's mourning of the loss of faith in the idea of Kenya.

Odidi's story is drawn out mainly through the eyes of his artist-sister Ajany, whose own disillusioned inquiry into her brother's death becomes a stand-in for her and her author's bitter analysis of the waste of talent and human potential in the family and nation that she so desperately loves - or wants to love - a "dense land, its memories a deluge that crave atonement."

Reviewer Simon Lewis teaches African Literature in the Department of English at the College of Charleston. He is the author of "British and African Literature in Transnational Context."