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Dance of the Jakaranda

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  657 ratings  ·  114 reviews
Set in the shadow of Kenya's independence from Great Britain, Dance of the Jakaranda reimagines the special circumstances that brought black, brown and white men together to lay the railroad that heralded the birth of the nation.

The novel traces the lives and loves of three men--preacher Richard Turnbull, the colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and Indian technician Babu
Paperback, 342 pages
Published February 7th 2017 by Akashic Books
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Waheed Rabbani
Feb 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
In 1901, a train chugs along Kenya’s Rift Valley on the newly laid tracks from Mombasa to Port Victoria. Seated in the first-class cabin, conversing amiably, are Ian McDonald (“Master”), the railway superintendent, and Reverend Turnbull. As the train passes through a township, Master recalls that this was where they’d left their technician Babu, the Indian “f— bastard,” and Turnbull acknowledges that he is now raising that man’s allegedly illegitimate daughter. Master receives land near Lake Nak ...more
Gail Nyoka
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This story is extraordinarily well-crafted. It's like a spiral whose circles wind tightly from the previous circle, coming back to pick up a piece of the narrative then moving onward before winding back again.

The Dance of the Jakaranda is the dance of the people who come to the British East Africa Protectorate to build a railroad, and their interaction with the people who already inhabit the land. The stories of the characters, British, Indian and African, intertwine in unexpected ways. It takes
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book tells something of the history of the land that was to become Kenya and how that country came to gain its independence from Great Britain. It is historical fiction laced with cultural insight into the three societies that struggled with each other and finally combined to form something new and unique. We have the native African culture, the English culture, and the Indian culture. Each in its own way contributed to the making of Kenya.

This is also the story of three men and how their p
Feb 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Most great novels center around an engaging narrative that works on one, maybe two levels. But in a true master work, on par with say Shakespeare or Marquez, the narrative works on multiple levels: emotional, political, familial, spiritual. If executed — and executed well — the resulting work will last generations and resonate with readers across the globe.

A tall order to be sure. But author Peter Kimani does just that in his American debut, “Dance of the Jakaranda.”

This is not hyperbole: it’s a
Sep 25, 2017 rated it did not like it
Although there are a few section where the author clearly brings to light the experience of indentured labor and the role of the British in building the railway in Kenya, the majority of the book is not worth the read. The characters did not have depth, and often resorted to unnatural dialog and verbalizing their emotions in order to carry forward the plot. It seems like the author might be trying to be funny, ironic, or satirical at points, but it comes off as poorly written.

One thing that both
Apr 26, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: africa, bipoc-author
This had so much potential but ended up really confusing. It might just be because I read it over a much longer time period than usual, but I lost track of the stories and the time periods all too often. I really valued the glimpse of historical Kenya and race relations.
Mar 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was a walk down memory lane and history for me. From sayings/proverbs I grew up with, to stories and characters I grew up hearing about... to actual historical events. The historical setting was rich and got me thinking about all the untold stories that followed the construction of the railway and the communities near and around it.
At times, the story sounded implausible and was slow, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.
Wathingira Gituro
May 20, 2018 rated it liked it
(3.5/5 stars) would have been 4 stars, but...
I didn't immediately warm up to the book when I started it. Telling the story of Rev. Turnbull, a missionary, McDonald, supervisor of the KE-UG railway construction, and Babu, a migrant worker from Punjab (present territory having been divided between India and Pakistan), through their role in the building of a railway and the mystery of who is the actual father to an impregnated Maa girl, the story takes place through some of the seminal moments if K
Apr 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
A well told and crafted historical novel with a dose of humor. This novel bounces around in time, using a few narrative techniques which makes this a pleasant and enjoyable dance. Essentially the novel is rooted in the lives of three main characters, Ian McDonald the colonial master administrator, Richard Turnbull, the Christian missionary preacher and Babu the Indian surveyor. Each of their stories unfold from 1900 to 1963 in Kenya as their lives intersect as all three are in Kenya to play a ro ...more
Gorgeously written and splendidly read, this debut historical novel should have worked better for me, and the fault is probably mine. I might have enjoyed it more--and become more immersed in story and characters--had I read it all at once, rather than in bits and pieces over about a month. That said, it is an interesting look at Kenyan history and independence, the role played by Indians over the past century, and the fall of British colonialism there. Kimani personalizes the conflicts primaril ...more
Ceillie Simkiss
I received an ARC of this novel from Eidelweiss, and I really wanted to like it, but I couldn't get into it. I feel bad about being the only rating on this page, but this book was like pulling teeth for me to read. ...more
Dec 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The thing I hate about listening on Audible on my phone, is that the slightest "mis-touch" and you land somewhere you already 'were', or somewhere still to come... grr.

Yet in spite of that, this was such a fascinating book, the story is so multi-dimensional. The writer sets us before a complex historical backdrop, complete with all the sub-divides of cultures, wars, colonialism, racial divides, and religious conflicts, and then he sets the stage with characters also so complex with their individ
Chris Baker
Jan 07, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, history
I bought this for my father in law who comes from Kenya and is descended from one of the Punjabi coolies who built the railyway before becoming a political leader in Kenya. It's very enjoyable and engaging read which, through a fantastic page turning fictional tale about the intertwined lives of a cast of fictional charachters between in the establishment of British East Africa and the independent Afrian nation under Kenyatta, provides some colourful insight into what his experience might have b ...more
Afaf Finan
Feb 25, 2021 rated it really liked it
A very poignant story, interspersed with humor that shows that racial prejudice was alive and well in the Kenya of the early 1900’s. The building of the railroad, starting in Mombassa, provides the setting and part of the plot.
Jun 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting story but the flowery language was time consuming to wade through. I wanted more of the story and the people. All came together at the end which was nicely woven through historical pieces.
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I admit it -- I had no idea of Kenya's complicated history until I read this book, which tells us the story of Britain's violent colonization of the area and the subsequent fight for Kenyan independence.

Kimani holds nothing back as he tells his story, primarily through three protagonists. The African tribes won't cooperate with the superior white men to destroy their beautiful country? No problem. Bring in 30,000+ people from the Indian subcontinent to do the work. Treat them only slightly bette
Apr 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought Kimani's book nicely captures many cultural underpinnings that were and still are Kenya. We often hear the colonial sides in fiction and non-fiction about Kenya, and Kenya's own writers have expounded richly on the African experience, but we don't (or at least I haven't) come across much fiction with Indian cultural elements woven in to a historical tapestry. Kimani weaves characters from these three cultural groups, Indians, Brits, and Kenyans in a creative way and tells an interestin ...more
Muthoni Muiruri
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
When I started reading this book, I wanted to love it so badly for the simple reason that it is Kenyan and patriot that I am, I started loving before reading and right off the bat, went into it with a biased view. As I immersed myself into it, however, I did more than just love it, I learnt a whole lot about my country, her genesis, her beautiful complicated history; and how we came to be a beautiful mix of Africans and Indians and Brits.

Its 1901, Ian McDonald ‘Master’ is here in the British Ea
Agathe Vime
Nov 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really recommend this book. It gets a bit slow sometimes but it’s worth it. I really loved Kimani’s writing.
It’s a beautiful, raw story that intertwines facts and fictions, folklore and harsh historical facts that made me feel Kenya is really my home. I wouldn’t know how to explain why, I guess many things just felt familiar, but at the same time I learnt a lot from it. I have to confess I haven’t read a lot of Kenyan literature apart from Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and this book made me feel that I sh
A compelling story of colonial Kenya from the end of the 19th century to the 1960s and Independence. Centering around the 600-mile train line linking Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean at Mombasa, we are given a powerful social, political, familial, and cultural critique of the English, African and Indian agents at work.
The parallel story of Rajan and Miriam would have worked better for me if it had occurred in the chronological telling of the story. Separating it added no value for me.
Gordon Paisley
Three and a half stars.

In Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani tells the story of three men who were involved with the building of the railway across Kenya in the early 1900s. One is the former British army officer leading the construction project, one is a missionary and the third is an Indian laborer. The story is told over a span of almost 70 years as these men interact from the days of the railway to Kenyan independence in 1963. Along the way, we see the weaknesses of these men play out, eac
Jun 06, 2018 rated it it was ok
Stay for: Good story telling. Rambling stories that are just enough to keep you engaged.
Leave because of: Lack of focus and direction. I don't know what this novel is about. The narrative jumps to different times in the early history of the country but the narrative thread holding the different eras is tenuous at best. Same goes for the main characters and the level of coincidence and happenstance is lazy.
Words and phrases used are jarring for being out of the time the book is set. Small boys i
Jan 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult, historical
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher and I have pretty mixed feelings about it. Overall I enjoyed reading it and I found the characters to be compelling, but I found the plot and writing style to be a bit convoluted. The story jumped back and forth in time in a way that felt a bit choppy to me, and a little hard to follow. I appreciated the way that the author dealt with some difficult themes and I felt that the characters were well developed. I'm glad I read it and I would recommen ...more
Apr 28, 2018 rated it liked it
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It was an engaging, quite fun read, and an interesting presentation of Kenya's history and race relations. But at the same time, I felt I wasn't getting the satirical style. Like I knew the over-the-top writing style and slightly one dimensional characters was intentional, but couldn't help finding it all a bit much. This style also felt particularly jarring when it came it the female characters - lots of descriptions of their bodies and much of the ...more
Lauren Maly
Dec 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Dance of the Jakaranda is a beautifully written book. Kimani's prose is among literature's best, and the novel provides a compelling picture of colonial and postcolonial life for Indians, Africans, and Europeans living in Kenya. The book captured my attention immediately and held it to the end, and even though it's fiction, it should be of serious interest to historians and non-fiction readers, as well. ...more
Gary Lal
Nov 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani is a great read through a dynamic novel with historical, political, and great social value. Kimani has been an established poet and author in Kenya after he started his career as a journalist, and Dance of the Jakaranda is his third novel. As Kimani himself puts it, the novel is “set in the shadow of Kenya’s independence from Great Britain” and follows the stories of Reverend Richard Turnbull, colonial administrator Ian McDonald, and Indian technician Babu ...more
Jackie Law
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani, looks at one hundred years of Kenyan social history through the eyes of three immigrants and their descendants, whose lives intersect during the building of a railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Ian Edward McDonald, an ex-military man, is tasked with overseeing the laying of five hundred miles of track through the hinterlands of what was then called the British East Africa Protectorate. Reverend Richard Turnbull is a missionary who befriends McDonald i ...more
Jennifer Moore
Jan 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani is an expansive tale of colonial and independence-era Kenya that effortlessly blends multiple narrative threads crossing decades and generations. Each of the characters and stories is fascinating in their own right, aside from unraveling the mystery of how they intersect. The storylines are woven together seamlessly, and jump back and forward in time organically, with the construction of the plot never feeling formulaic or contrived.

At the heart of the sto
Apr 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: african-fiction
Listening to Dance of the Jakaranda as an audiobook underlines the novel's emphasis on storytelling as a device - you're more accepting of the book's tangents and interruptions because, as with its its own storytelling characters, the performance is part of the history. The parallels between the snaking nature of the train, the meandering course of characters' lives, and roundabout way that the plot is unfurled all subtly and effortlessly mirror each other, oscillating in time between the constr ...more
Apr 21, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a rare instance when I appreciated a novel by an African author set in Africa. It’s a sweeping account of 60 years of the formation of what is now Kenya. It’s surprisingly multicultural, as British colonialists brought in Indian and Arab immigrants to work on the railroad that opened up the colony. They established a rigid, segregated hierarchy, with the Africans at the bottom. Although the Arab population doesn’t play much of a role in the story, the author is surprisingly empathetic to ...more
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PETER KIMANI is a leading Kenyan journalist and author of, most recently, Dance of the Jakaranda, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The novel was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the US and long-listed for the inaugural Big Book Awards in the UK. He has taught at Amherst College and the University of Houston and is presently based at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School o ...more

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