Dust—a single word evoking brevity and simplicity—belies the complexity of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s expansive tome that ultimately falters under the weight of its ambitious scope. A troubled family is forced to grapple with the death of a wayward son who was killed in a police raid. Patriarch Aggrey Nyipir Oganda travels to Nairobi from rural northern Kenya to obtain the body of Odidi Oganda. Arabel Ajany, Odidi’s sister, journeys from Brazil as much to escape her own demons as to bury her brother. Meanwhile, a stranger from England arrives at Wuoth Ogik, Nyipir’s secluded, desert homestead, stating that Odidi has information regarding the whereabouts of the father he was born not knowing. As the backdrop to this domestic turmoil, elections that have taken place in Kenya have been compromised by corruption. The unrest that ensues throughout the country leads Nyipir to reflect on the equally brutal period that ushered in Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule.
Dust opens with a riveting prologue that describes Odidi’s desperate attempt to evade capture by the police during what was supposed to be his last heist for a gang he was working with, only to be shot and killed. Unfortunately, the ensuing chapters are fragmented and fail to delineate central plot points that will advance the novel in the aftermath of his death. Thus, it is unclear whether Dust’s primary focus is on seeking justice for Odidi or dissecting the dynamics of the Oganda family that led to the estrangement of the children from their parents and Odidi’s descent into criminality. Upon being presented with the corpse of her son, Odidi and Ajany’s mother, Akai, vanishes into the desert, spurning her husband and daughter. The Trader, an enigmatic figure notorious for “collect[ing] secrets, a source of income, a pleasurable economy,” is summoned to Wuoth Ogik to eliminate demons of various forms. Nyipir’s reminiscences on his rise to power and fall from grace while serving his country in its founding days, as well as the arrival of British-born Isaiah, who hopes to learn his father’s fate, obfuscate the narrative further.
The characters Owuor crafts, while imbued with careful detail, fail to live up to the intensity the novel attributes to them. The fascination with Isaiah’s father, Hugh Bolton, for whom “[…his mother] cried out for… before she died” is unclear given that Hugh is portrayed as a negligent husband and a bigot who staunchly believed that the British should govern Kenya. The romance between Ajany and Isaiah feels forced, especially given that Ajany had recently left a troubled relationship in Brazil. Akai Lokorijom, Odidi’s mother, is portrayed as an imposing and captivating figure, but is not physically present for most of the novel. Thus, her character is not represented on her own terms until the conclusion of the book. Nyipir and Odidi emerge as the two most credible characters, who share a similar arc, though it occurs under different circumstances for each of them. Nyipir is deemed a traitor to the military for inadvertently acknowledging the atrocities that were carried out by the Kenyan government in its early days. He is imprisoned, tortured, and destined for death until a sympathetic former colleague helps him escape. He then turns to illicit dealings in cattle and arms in the north Kenyan desert. Odidi trained as an engineer at the University of Nairobi and founded his own firm with a classmate but resigned in disgrace after refusing to accept a government bribe in exchange for work on a corrupt project. “[…] Odidi’s time with the gang came from heroic idealism. He had only been organizing the disenchanted youth to work for a different future for themselves.” Thus, father and son are forced to turn their backs on the country they sought to serve.
The final sixty pages of Dust see the preponderance of the novel’s action, but the revelations that occur are unsatisfying. Isaiah’s discovery that his mission to locate Hugh Bolton is not relevant to his identity is weakened by the fact that his character does not exist much outside of this quest. Akai’s explanation for her emotional distance from her daughter detracts from the formidable complexity of her character. Even after taking revenge on the missionaries who betrayed him, leading to the deaths of his wife and children, the Trader remains a wandering recluse, “a gatherer and carrier of stories.” A wake for Odidi at Wuoth Ogik brings some closure for the Oganda family, but ultimately they disperse from their homestead, and it is unlikely that they will ever see one another again.
Perhaps the most compelling character in Dust is the northern Kenyan countryside. Owuor’s prose pulses with descriptions of “a stark otherworldliness where the sky dominated everything” and “[…] giraffes browse on the extended banks of streams, among pockets of flowering shrubs of all hues…” This arid landscape contrasts sharply with urban Nairobi and is divorced from the political turmoil that the latter is gripped by. The final message conveyed in Dust is that no matter who inhabits the country or takes charge of its government, the land will always remain and is the ultimate authority over Kenya and its people.
1. The World Factbook: KENYA.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 26 Sep. 2018. Web. 13 Oct. 2018.