THE BOOK OF SECRETS by M.G. Vassanji

THE BOOK OF SECRETS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In a novel that won Canada's distinguished Giller Prize, East African-born Vassanji (No New Land, p. 102) details a languorous pursuit of secrets hinted at in an old diary--a diary that becomes in the end a search for meaning in the investigator's own life. A product of the Asian settlements in East Africa from Kenya to South Africa, Vassanji is not only telling a story but recalling a way of life that has almost disappeared as Asians have increasingly left Africa. The tale begins in 1988, when Plus Fernandes, a retired schoolteacher of Indian birth, is handed an old diary by a former student. In it he finds not only a pastime but reminders of his own failures as a shy bachelor to accept love and friendship. The diary, found in a deserted storeroom, belonged to Sir Alfred Corbin, a British colonial officer who was sent in 1913 to administer an area in Kenya, near what was then German East Africa. Fernandes reads the diary, talks to those who knew some of the people referred to, and offers excerpts, possible interpretations of events, as well as accounts of his own life. In his entries, Corbin records impressions of the new country and of his relations with Asian shopkeepers and local Africans, but he seems--as Fernandes will later be--most obsessed with Mariamu, a beautiful Indian woman who becomes his servant. Mariamu is accused of being possessed; she is not a virgin when she marries Pipa, a merchant and later a spy; and Ali, the son she soon gives birth to, is suspiciously fair. The truth of Corbin's relationship with Mariamu is further complicated by Pipa's ambiguous espionage during the 1914-18 war. Ali, who immigrates to Britain, eventually meets Corbin; but Fernandes, failing to learn what the truth of Ali's parentage might be, accepts the fact that perhaps we can never know the past except incompletely, ""as incompletely as we know ourselves."" Gracefully evocative of a distant time and place, but too coolly and carefully crafted to be fully absorbing.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1996
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Picador/St. Martin's