"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani

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"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani
In Dance of the Jakaranda Peter Kimani constructs a model of Imperial Britain and its administration (plunder, despoliation, usurpation, oppression) of what was once called the British East African Protectorate, and is now called Kenya. It features an insecure and ambitious British grandee who controls, or, we should say lords it over, the hundreds of workers imported to build a railroad from Mombasa to the interior. The narrative follows the exploits and misadventures of a handful of characters, and creaks a bit as it tries to bear up under the pressure of betrayal, misunderstanding, and the larger forces of prejudice and political upheaval.

Three generations of a Punjabi family figure prominently here: the grandfather is one of the artisans imported from across the Indian Ocean to Kenya to help build the railroad as the 20th Century dawns. The middle generation is not known in the story, for a couple of reasons, but the third generation reaps the unfortunate results of the sins of their forebears. For me these characters lacked depth; they apparently stand as totems or emblems of geopolitical actors: the old Englishman with his crippling doubts and weaknesses, least entitled to hold the position he comes into; the young besotted singer and musician, who we’re to believe inspires widespread protests and dies a political martyr’s death.

The difficulties I found stem from a failure to put the reader on site with any effectiveness. The twists of the plot gain momentum toward the end, a momentum flowing from history, but came across to me as quite a bit less than inevitable - even a little forced. The strength of this book lies in its stark depiction of the human cost of colonialism. The construct of everyone’s tied-together fates is inadequate support for the themes developed.

I found this an unrewarding read.