Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani: A review

This book tells something of the history of the land that was to become Kenya and how that country came to gain its independence from Great Britain. It is historical fiction laced with cultural insight into the three societies that struggled with each other and finally combined to form something new and unique. We have the native African culture, the English culture, and the Indian culture. Each in its own way contributed to the making of Kenya.

This is also the story of three men and how their personal histories became tangled together. Richard Turnbull was a preacher from England whose mission was to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Ian McDonald was the British colonial administrator sent to oversee the construction of a railway from Mombasa to the coast. Babu Salim was a technician from Punjab who worked as a surveyor and assisted in the construction of the railway. The lives of the three intersected around the turn of the the twentieth century and for the next sixty plus years those lives are woven together in a loose tapestry, the connecting thread of which is the controversial birth of the granddaughter of a local African chief.

The birth is controversial because the mother, the chief's daughter, was not married and the father of the child was not known. Initially, Babu Salim was thought to be the culprit, but when the baby emerged from her mother's loins with bright blue eyes, the chief absolved Babu and looked elsewhere for the father. The mystery of the little girl's parentage remains until near the end of the tale.

The child is adopted and raised by Richard Turnbull. Meanwhile, Ian McDonald proceeds with the construction of his railway, riding roughshod over the rights and the lands of the locals in the process. Babu, who had absconded after being accused of fathering the child, finds a different path in life, and his wife, Fatima, who had stayed on the coast where they had landed in their journey from Punjab, made her own success as a small businesswoman. 

Many years later, Babu's beloved grandson, Rajan, makes his living as a singer at the Jakaranda Hotel. (The Jakaranda was originally built as a house for Ian McDonald. He planned to welcome his wife, Sally, from England and impress her with its magnificent structure. Sally, though, took one look and turned around and went back to England.) Rajan is a local favorite who sings the stories that Babu has told him about his epic adventures in building the great railway. Then one night in the darkened hallway of the nightclub Rajan is kissed by a mysterious woman. It is an incident that will once again tie the lives of those three old men from sixty years before together and begin to illuminate their shared history and heritage.

This is an extremely diverting and well-crafted story. Moreover, it is written with great humor, occasionally laugh-out-loud humor, but more often the sly grin and chuckle kind. In addition to weaving the plot-line so expertly and with such grace and wit, Peter Kimani writes in a clear and understated style which makes the very complex story that he is telling easy to follow. Relating the tale of colonial rule and its fallout could have been a much grimmer story - and no doubt there is a grim story to be told - but Kimani manages to present that hurtful past in a straightforward manner that does not shortchange it but makes it simply one element of a greater whole. It is a subtle and multilayered story that takes us on a long journey through time and place and right into the hearts and minds of his characters of all races and colors.

On a personal note, I was delighted to discover, while reading the acknowledgements and the writer's biography at the end, that Peter Kimani is a product of the University of Houston, my younger daughter's alma mater and current employer. He earned his doctorate from their acclaimed Creative Writing Program in 2014 and acknowledges their help, along with that of many others, in writing this book. UH should be proud of Mr. Kimani and I'm sure they are.

This is Kimani's third book. I hope there will be many, many more.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   



  1. I'm glad you loved it! On the topic of British emigres in Kenya, I have read Circling the Sun, a delightful historical fiction.

    1. I thought it was a great read and I will look into the title you mentioned.

  2. You are the first, in my wanderings of the literary internet, to introduce me to this book. I read a bestseller from 1955 by Robert Ruark entitled Something of Value, which gave the story of Kenya's fight for independence from a white colonial's point of view. This one, coming from a Kenyan author, should tell a rather different story. I am interested!

    1. He tells a very balanced story that gives the reader a full perspective of the sins of colonialism and paternalism. One might also add sexism and racism.


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