Review: Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani

Most great novels center around an engaging narrative that works on one, maybe two levels. But in a true master work, on par with say Shakespeare or Marquez, the narrative works on multiple levels: emotional, political, familial, spiritual. If executed — and executed well — the resulting work will last generations and resonate with readers across the globe.

A tall order to be sure. But author Peter Kimani does just that in his American debut, “Dance of the Jakaranda.”

This is not hyperbole: it’s a masterpiece.

The novel is essentially the story of two men, Ian McDonald from England and Babu Salim from Punjab, who both travel to the British East Africa Protectorate (now known as Kenya) in the 1890s to construct the nation’s first railway. McDonald, a white man known as Master, is determined to complete his colonial service mission and construct the railroad, despite environmental and cultural destruction. Babu, a newly married railway technician, survives a perilous journey across the Indian Ocean only to suffer further hardship as a member of the racially divided railway construction team.

More than a reimagination of the creation of “the lunatic express,” “Dance of the Jakaranda” is also examination of how history is constructed “in a land where myth and history often intersect.” Kimani does this by shifting narratives and, at times, delivery methods: McDonald’s storyline includes formal letters written to and from members of the British service, while Babu and the workers’ narratives include oral histories delivered both by a butcher and a drummer.

These shifts are executed as smoothly as an experienced engineer shifting from one track to another. Because Kimani sees each narrative a lifetime through — from the turn of the century to Kenya’s independence in 1963 — readers see and understand the long-term impact of colonial rule on a nation, a city, a family, and an individual.

By carefully weaving together experiences from black, white and brown men, Kimani delivers a fascinating, multilayered portrait of a land in the throes of great change.