The In-between World of Vikram Lall by M. G. Vassanji
Cosseted by family and comfortable in their adopted country, Vikram and his sister, Deepa, are only semi-aware of the turbulent times they are living in; Kenya is on the brink of independence and the violent rise of the Mau Mau freedom fighters looms darkly over their world. This early third of the narrative is by far the novel’s strongest section. Though the rest of the tale contains much that should be compelling, Deepa’s relationship with Njoroge blossoming into something stronger than friendship, Vikram’s gradual absorption into a world of politics and power, the writing fails to deliver.
Vassanji’s ambitions are admirable, the novel assembles a large cast of characters, including some genuine political figures, and spans over four decades of Kenyan history. It’s an impeccably researched and lovingly crafted work peppered with evocative imagery but his chosen prose style lacks balance and clarity. The writing is sometimes too rich for its own good. Pages are devoted to describing a steam locomotive when Vikram first joins the Ministry for Transport, yet a daughter’s birth merits only a lone buried sentence. Incidental episodes and pivotal points of the plot are recounted in the same densely worded manner. The resulting narrative resembles an out-of-focus photograph; Vassanji’s stylistic choices drain all the drama out of the book’s many potentially gripping and emotive scenes, they blur what could have been an interesting account of political responsibility and doomed cross-cultural longing.
In this way Vassanji’s tale is reminiscent of The Book of Salt, Monique Troung’s novel based on the life of Gertrude Stein’s Vietnamese chef; while the story contains the seeds of some amazing ideas, they are well-hidden beneath an excess of elaborate prose and unnecessarily oblique storytelling. The deaths and betrayals and the thwarted passion fail to engage as they should. There are some undeniably tender moments, Deepa and Njoroge’s visit to a Hindu temple and some of Vikram’s childhood episodes with his friends Bill and Annie, but the often convoluted writing style ensures that it’s a struggle to empathise with the characters.
Narrated from present day Canada by an exiled and regretful Vikram contemplating a return to the country he grew up in, Vassanji’s novel is very successful at depicting the In-Between world of the title, the specific cultural experience of being an Indian living in colonial Africa, of being torn between the traditions of one continent and the customs of another. Unfortunately this well-realised world is saddled with a cumbersome and overwritten plot that continually undermines what should have been a fascinating novel.