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The Book of Secrets (1994)
by M. G. Vassanji
No current Talk conversations about this book.
Kind of eclectic but interesting and realistic -- this is NOT the book for those who like all the loose ends neatly tied up. This book intentionally and explicitly leaves most of the strings untied. It's a bit of history and family saga in Dar es Salaam, where British colonials, Indians, and Africans co-exist (though not necessarily peacefully). It's not about death and destruction though war happens. It's a novel about people's lives in a culture and time period different from any in North America or Europe. A good read, but not one that you want to pick and put down repeatedly or drag out; if you do that you'll lose the threads and not appreciate the narrative.
1994 Giller Prize Winner
this book did not work for me. The characters felt underdeveloped and the structure left me floating around, disjointed.
In Dar es Salaam in the late 1980s, Pius Fernandes, a retired teacher who has fallen on hard times, is taken in by a former student. The younger man is curious about an old book he has found in his store and he asks Fernandes to study it and see what he can make of it. The book is a diary from the colonial era, written during the early career of a man who later rose in the ranks of British administration in its colonies. How did his diary end up in a store in Dar es Salaam?
I would – I told myself – recreate the world of that book. I would breathe life into the many spirits captured in its pages so long ago and tell their stories; and I would revive the spirit of the book itself, tell its own story. And so I would construct a history, a living tapestry to join the past to the present, to defy the blistering shimmering dusty bustle of city life outside which makes transients of us all.
Thus begins a journey into the past, to a small settlement in British East Africa near the border with German East Africa, to a time just before the Great War, and to a clash of cultures and loyalties. A chain of events begins that will affect later generations in different places. Exactly what happened all those years ago? Will the book reveal its secrets, or will they remain forever out of reach?
I was quickly drawn into the world of the novel through the diary of Alfred Corbin, a minor official in British East Africa (now Kenya) just before the outbreak of World War I. The novel starts with the contents of the diary, viewing people and events through Corbin's eyes. Then the perspective shifts as Fernandes learns about the same people and events from other sources. The location also shifts, first from one side of the border to the other, and finally to Dar es Salaam in what is now Tanzania. The more Fernandes learns, the more difficult it becomes to determine where the truth lies.
Migration and displacement are recurring themes in this novel. The main characters are all immigrants in Africa, either from India or from Great Britain. The Indian Muslim sect that made up the heart of the settlement in British East Africa had stronger ties to other ethnic settlements on both sides of the border than to the British colony in which their settlement was located. Characters who establish themselves in a location find themselves rebuilding careers, businesses and personal lives as a result of political changes.
Even though I quite liked this book, some aspects of its structure didn't quite work for me. The first part of the novel is based on Alfred Corbin's diary, and part of his story is told in first person. However, an omniscient narrator adds details that were not in Corbin's diary. The narrator may be Fernandes, who is adding information he gathered from other sources. It's not clear enough for my liking. Fernandes becomes a protagonist toward the end of the novel, and the story lost some of its momentum for me then. It seems fragmented and the ending has an unfinished feel. I'll remember it most of all for its unusual location and time period – British East Africa and German East Africa during World War I.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
"The Book of Secrets" is a spellbinding novel of generations and the sweep of history which begins in 1988 in Dar es Salaam when the 1913 diary of a British colonial officer is found in a shopkeeper's back room. The diary enflames the curiosity of a retired schoolteacher, Pius Fernandes, whose obsession with the stories it contains gradually connects the past with the present. Inhabiting the story is a memorable cast of characters, part of an Asian community in East Africa, whose lives and fates we follow over the course of seven decades. Rich in detail and description, M. G. Vassanji's award-winning novel magnificently conjures setting and the realm of eras past as it explores the state of living in exile from one's home and from oneself. "From the Trade Paperback edition."
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
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The diary isn't so much a book of secrets. Rather, it is the secrets which are kept by the people associated with the diary, and the tragedy their secrets foment.
The writing is spare, what might be termed lean, yet it is that spare quality which lends a sense of penury and pain to the narrative. This is not a story of happy endings. This is a story about madness and compulsion, about the very worst of human nature, and into that darkness Vassanji creates a twisting, sometimes confusing narrative which flows from person to person as the diary is handed off, sometimes part of an occult shrine, sometimes forgotten and later unearthed to the surprise and sorrow of the next generation.
There are conversations in the narrative which are never spoken (secrets), and there are prejudices held and never revealed (more secrets), and crimes committed and entombed in memory (yet even more secrets). Layers upon layers of misery.
Not for the faint of heart. Not an easy read. Not a lazy afternoon in the hammock kind of fiction. But it is worth your time and attention. ( )