HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 November 2004
Growing up in Nakuru, Kenya, in the 1950s, Vikram Lall and his sister Deepa, the children of Indian merchants, become friends with British children Bill Bruce and his sister Annie, and with Njoroge, a Kikuyu who lives with his grandfather, the family's gardener. While Vic is secretly in love with Annie, Njoroge is secretly in love with Deepa, both childhood relationships ignoring the cultural and color barriers of the times. The Mau Mau, a Kikuyu group dedicated to ridding the country of the British, are on the march, attacking and killing British men, women, and children. To Lall and his friends, who live in an area where violence has not yet struck, however, they are almost mythic creatures, until the violence strikes close to home, and Vic's life and perceptions are altered forever.
Alternating points of view between the present, when Vikram Lall is in his fifties and living outside Toronto, Canada, where he is "numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men," and the early 1950s, when he lived in a diverse Kenyan community, Vassanji shows how the Lalls are doubly alienated, first from their family in India, whose village, thanks to the British Partition of India, is now part of Pakistan, and from the majority population of Kenya. His depiction of the Lall family, the Indian merchant community, and the African community's hostility towards British rule sets the scene for the action during the next forty years.
When Vic, as a young man living in the ultimately independent Kenya, works in the Ministry of Transport and moves up the political ladder, he is powerless to resist orders from his superiors, even though his job is to launder cash coming in as bribes. The story of Jomo Kenyatta and his successors, and the growing corruption which taints their governments--and Vic--becomes increasingly compelling as the stories of Vic, Deepa, and Njoroge continue to intersect and overlap.
Vassanji tells a fully developed saga that stimulates the reader's emotions at the same time that it reflects historical realities, and the plot is filled with the excitement of change along with its problems. Through intense and vividly rendered descriptions, he juxtaposes the natural world against the unnatural violence of the times. Strong love stories, told realistically, run parallel to the action and keep the reader involved on a level beyond that of history and theme, as the characters evolve in response to the changing times. Fascinating and involving on all levels, this novel, winner of Canada's Giller Prize, should win a broad new audience for M. G. Vassanji. Mary Whipple