Saturday, 26 July 2014

The In Between World of Vikram Lall


M.G. Vassanji

ISBN: 10-1-4000-7565-0

When I first picked this book up, I was expecting...I don’t know what really, but it certainly wasn’t what I got! It is one of the most avid reads I have had for a long time. Perhaps it is because it uses, as its backdrop, a period of history, recent enough for me to have been alive for, of which I had no information about before reading this tale. Only occasional words and phrases, ‘Mau Mau’ for example, had entered my world of knowledge, but I had no context in which to place it. But I must make clear from the outset, this is not a book about them, it is not a book of blood and guts, and explicit terror, but more about the consequences of the changes that were happening in Kenya, during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.      

The main protagonist, Vik, is telling us the story of his life, justifying his status as the most hated man in Kenya, on the most wanted list, with African hit men on the lookout for him. This makes him sound like a hardened baddie, but he isn’t, just a victim of circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting the wrong people. I’ve just made it sound like a thriller, or a crime mystery, which it definitely is not. The criminal status is a backdrop for the story of his and his family’s life.

The story begins with his childhood, he and his sister from Indian stock, but Kenyan by birth, and their forged friendships with an African servant boy, and a pair of English children. As the Mau Mau terror period looms and erupts, the children’s lives and futures are forever changed and we follow each life to its present day conditions. We are taken through the revolution and the fledging birth of the new country, and explore how each community fares. Indians will suddenly lose their property and wealth, the Mau Mau fighters are let down on the governments promises, and the government is as corrupt as before any changes. The narrative resists the changes to this modern way of thinking, when we are with  Vik’s parents, who insist still on arranged marriages with one’s own culture, and the narrative will forge ahead with changes when we spend time with Deepa, Vik’s sister. Njoroge, the childhood servant boy adds yet another layer in the interwoven lives of all the characters. A certain amount of predictability creeps into the love story aspect of this tale, although that is blown apart on the very last page. I will resist a spoiler, but I did find the ending a little odd, considering the text, the narrator and the end. Those who read this tale will understand.

I found myself there, in Kenya, with the characters from the very beginning. The writing that absorbs the reader into the page and the atmosphere is excellent. I could smell the street, hear the sounds of the jungle and see the vistas of the Rift valley. Vassanji is a first class wordsmith, and I am very pleased to have had the pleasure of finding this book, in a second hand bookshop in Nova Scotia, Canada.    

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