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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
The Book Of Secrets
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on 2 September 2017
Fantastic book, a must read if you love literature from African
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 September 2003
The narrator of this fascinating novel, Pius Fernandes, uses this description to refer to an old diary, which he has received from one of his former students, a shopkeeper in Dar es Salaam. It is, however, an equally apt description of the novel itself. The "captured spirits," in both cases, represent several generations of Indian expatriate merchants living in the shadows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, straddling the border of Kenya and Tanzania. As Pius Fernandes investigates mysterious events only partially explained by the British Assistant District Commissioner, Alfred Corbin, in his 1913 diary, the reader is treated to a century of East African history, from the days of British and German colonial rule in Kenya and Tanzania, respectively, through its World War II battles, its independence movements, and up to the present. Since the narrator and all the main characters from three generations are either Indian or British, and not African, the reader gains a unique perspective on the unfolding events in these African countries.
The author's ambitious scope and broad perspective, his overlapping characters from several generations, the thread of mystery which connects the 1913 diary with characters well into the present, and his seductive story-telling, all contribute to an exciting narrative which will actively involve even the most jaded reader. The insights we gain into the character of the narrator and one or two other main characters engage the heart, making the conclusion understandable, if not satisfying. Offering a unique point of view, this is a story which enlightens while it entertains. Mary Whipple
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on 19 November 2002
Mr. Vassanji is an engaging, capable writer. The book centers on a lost historical journal; Vassanji skillfully weaves the present day (a historian’s research) with historical events (World War I in Eastern Africa) and daily life (the saga of an Indian merchant’s family). All three facets are equally fascinating. Around the framework of a historian’s jigsaw puzzle, world events and colonial policy, he delves deep into the personal lives, loves, and caste system surrounding African/Indian society.
He also successfully illustrates how illiteracy can blind otherwise clever people to the larger events around them, making them unknowing pawns in a greater game.
This book was hard to put down, and made me curious about visiting this corner of the world.
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on 2 April 1999
If you liked God of Small Things, or A Fine Balance, read this novel. Part historical, part mystery. Written lyrically, but not impenetrably. The story of how humans create their "talismans" and create history around what they understand or think they understand. A great summer read.
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on 16 August 2010
Vassanji writes superbly, and does paint vivid pictures on his East African canvas, spanning the twentieth century. Through the stories he tells, the history of the region is glimpsed, in an interesting way. But this is a book also about books, stories and history themselves. Starting and ending with the "Book of Secrets" of the title, a diary kept by a British colonial administrator, the novel weaves its way through the personal and family histories of those linked to this book. There is a rich theme here of secrecy and disclosure, partial knowledge and understanding; some secrets are disclosed, others not. This ties in neatly with themes of literacy and education. The whole novel is an exploration of how full or partial our understanding of history - even our histories - ever is; some of this is discussed more explicitly towards the end of the book.

How well does the exploration of this theme work? I'm not sure, actually. The issue of partial perspective (in both senses of the term - partial = not full, and partial = because of party interest) is raised, and handled in terms of what is lost and unrecorded, and the reliability of what is recorded. However, in the novel what is disclosed or not is actually very much the choice of the narrator, and fianlly for moral/comapssionate reasons, not because it is unknown. The diary does not remain secret or lost, and some sections of it are 'transcribed' - though not those which we and some characters in the novel would most like to read. So the novel becomes a partial history mostly by the choice of the narrator, less because of the partial perspective and knowledge of those looking back through history, or the reliability or otherwise of the remaining record; it is largely the choice of the present narrator not to make some secrets known that keeps history so patchy.

Perhaps this was exactly what the author wanted to explore, but it seemed to me that a larger theme of interest, perspective and knowledge was raised, while what actually happened was down to present authorial choice (both in the novel as Vassanji writes it, and in the disclosure / secrecy chocen by his narrator, Fernandes). Here, the author (both Vassanji and Fernandes) is not the disinterested, impartial, objective third-person narrator of the traditional novel, true. However, these authors tell us much less than they know, so it is the reader even more than the author who becomes the victim of partial story-telling. As I say, perhaps this is exactly what Vassanji wanted to explore, but I was not sure it worked as well as I hoped, as the novel progressed. (So it seemed a little too easy to say, "Look, history is partial because we choose not to tell all, just like me, here, writing this story.")

I have wavered, then, between a 3 or 4 star rating for this book. 4 for the rich, vivid, evocative writing; perhaps 3 because the ending does not bring any real sense of satisfaction (though this is perhaps the point, partly, of course), and for the thematic exploration ... and yet, in making the reader ask about the reasons for the partiality of our histories, Vassanji has surely achieved his purpose at least in part. So he's surely earned his 4 overall! I do recommend the book, with the caveats I've tried to explore here. Rick Simpson
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on 20 October 2013
Although after a few pages I felt disorientated and almost gave up, I am glad I didn't . An enthralling saga unfolded and gripped me in such a way that it was sad to finish.
I would urge anyone who was schooled in East Africa during colonial times and was forced to leave after independence to read this book ( as well as Vassanji's "...in between world").
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on 12 August 2016
An intricate story carefully woven and wonderfully evocative of the end of British rule in East Africa. Characters are described with insight and compassion, their foibles and contradictions gently held. A delightful read during my holiday in Tanzania.
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on 17 January 2015
good read
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