Energetic second novel by Odhiambo (diss/ed nation, not reviewed) about a young Kenyan-born athlete living with his parents in Vancouver—and haunted by his brother’s disappearance back in Nairobi.
Leeds Kipligat, 17, tries to keep up with his buddy and chief rival Kundivar Sharma, whom he dubs the “Punjabi version of Shaft,” in a track club that could lead to college scholarships. With the image of Kenya’s Olympic runner Kip Keino as a boost, he struggles through months of training, learning the pitfalls of not enough warm-ups while also handling scutwork in a restaurant kitchen and attending high school (he’s fond of Othello but more interested in his female classmates Steph and Svetlana). Leeds watches his parents go through their own turmoil of adjusting to a new country, his mother working double shifts, his father unemployed and prone to political protest. The day of his first competition, Leeds ties for second behind Kundivar, but this small triumph is overshadowed by the news that his mother is in the hospital. With her health troubles, his father rallies and gets a job as a janitor. Meanwhile, Steph, who lives upstairs with her alcoholic mother and little brother, is getting deeper into drugs and alcohol. Leeds fights back from a torn Achilles tendon and works hard to stay in training. Throughout the story, he has flashbacks of life in Kenya that often lead to so much despair that he cuts himself with a razor. His missing older brother (he “disappeared” after taking part in a political protest in Nairobi) is a major element in his life: he believes he can never run as fast, can never be as good as Keoh. Through bumbles and breakthroughs as he tells his tale, Leeds remains appealing, with humor, pathos, and a growing sense of himself.
Odhiambo is masterful at describing the pulls and pushes of a young man’s coming of age in an unfamiliar world that he must make his own.