African colonialism is confronted in this subtle, multilayered Kenyan tale.
A “massive, snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra’s, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna”: it’s 1901, and the first train has arrived in Kenya's Rift Valley from the port of Mombasa. This is how Kimani (Before the Rooster Crows, 2004) opens this lyrical and powerful historical novel about his homeland. It’s primarily the story of three men: the Master, Ian Edward McDonald, the Brit who built the railroad; Richard Turnbull, a preacher and friend of McDonald's; and Babu Salim, an Indian who helped build the railroad. Babu is also the grandfather of Rajan, a talented musician who now sings his songs in the Jakaranda Hotel, near where the railroad ends. Once a majestic monument to love that McDonald built for his wife, Sally, it fell to ruin—a “veritable heart of darkness”— after she refused to live there, disgusted when she saw how McDonald brutalized the workers and servants. Through a series of flashbacks the lives of these three men “run parallel to each other for decades,” finally coming together and unraveling in a “momentary clash” in the 1960s when Rajan is suddenly kissed in the dark hotel by a mysterious woman who then disappears. His obsession with her finally ends when he sees her on the dance floor and brings her onstage. Rajan and Mariam quickly develop a relationship; when he brings her to meet his elderly grandparents, she utters something to Babu, unleashing an unexplained curse dealing with ages-old illegitimacy and infidelity upon the family. Kimani weaves together a bitter, hurtful past and hopeful present in this rich tale of Kenyan history and culture, the railroad, and the men and women whose lives it profoundly affected.
Despite an overly complex and loose narrative, this is a thoughtful story about a country’s imperialist past.