THE DRAGONFLY SEA. By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Knopf. 512 pages. $28.95
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s first novel "Dust" had as its setting the desert north of her native Kenya and presented a picture of the legacy of that country’s experience of British colonialism. "The Dragonfly Sea" has even grander historical and geographical scope, but the Kenya of her follow-up novel is nothing like the barren landscape of "Dust."
Instead, this extravagant narrative is an oceanic novel centered on the Indian Ocean island of Pate, where Arab, Indian and African traders have seen dynasties rise and fall. In this lush setting, scented with cloves and tropical blossoms, Ayaana, a rebellious young girl, grows up as the daughter of her equally rebellious mother, Munira. The child is drawn to the sailor Muhidin and adopts him as her father, which in turn prompts a tempestuous relationship between Muhidin and Munira.
If the relationships in the novel are stormy, so are the times in which Owuor’s characters live. As an erstwhile center of Islamic civilization, Pate is caught up in the political storms that led to the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the rendition of terror suspects to Diego Garcia after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both Muhidin and his son, Ziriyab, are caught up in these storms, as well as in real storms, such as the actual tsunami of Christmas 2004.
The historical range of Swahili trading is manifested in the presence of Chinese porcelain found in the East African coast’s distinctive pillar-tombs. In Owuor’s contemporary east Africa, China seeks to resurrect the contacts made as long ago as the 15th century by the celebrated admiral Zheng He. In order to add a layer of friendship and cultural exchange to their aggressive development plans in East Africa, the Chinese government use DNA testing to select a Pate resident to bring back to China. Ayaana is selected as “the Descendant” and is taken, by boat of course, to Xiamen in China where she is to study nautical science.
Rather melodramatically, she first becomes involved with the captain of the ship, Lai Jin, and later with Koray Terzioglu, heir to a Turkish shipping company hoping to benefit from China’s burgeoning economic power. Taken by Koray to Istanbul to meet his family, Ayaana barely escapes his ultra-controlling grip and returns chastened to China.
Once back in Xiamen she throws herself into her studies but also manages to track down her first lover, the ship’s captain, who has in the meantime become a renowned potter, despite his differences with the Chinese authorities. Lai Jin then follows Ayaana back to Pate where he converts to Islam and returns to the seafaring life as a nahodha (or dhow-captain). Unlike with Koray, Ayaana’s renewed love-making with Lai Jin, now Jamal, gives him a sense of “belonging” not “possession.”
True to the Swahili cultural context that has underlain this epic tale, the final scenes of the novel see Ayaana being prepared for her wedding with Lai Jin/Jamal by the “arcane society of women.” In language reminiscent of the famous 18th-century Swahili poem by Mwana Kupona, the women perfume Ayaana with “coconut oil, rose, jasmine, langilangi, patchouli, sandalwood, and cloves” and decorate her body with the finest henna patterns.
"The Dragonfly Sea," a novel of typhoons, tsunamis and stormy romance, therefore ends in somewhat sentimental fashion, with a homecoming and five days of wedding festivities as the new monsoon season is about to start.