Jane Bwye

Book Review

 

Christmas Special 2014

 

Book Review by Juliet Barnes

In the AIR KENYA In-Flight Magazine.

 

BREATH OF AFRICA 


Thorn trees and sunsets grace many book covers when the subject is Africa, but you should never judge a book by its cover - nor perhaps by its name. Jane Bwye's title - and cover - suggest that the reader is in for a nostalgic, romanticised memoir. Not a bit of it. This is a gripping historical novel.

Jane Bwye, who now lives in England, lived in Kenya for many years, raising six children before doing a computer course so she could then teach it and thus put her youngest through a good education. Now her book reveals her to be someone who knew and loved Kenya well and lived through many facets of its history. Scenes are credible and not exaggerated and the writer is broad-minded and non-judgemental. The story is well planned, fast-paced, albeit dragging its heels a little in the middle, and it's a good read, one which makes you go on to the next chapter. The story begins on a farm in the Kenya highlands, when Kenya was still a British colony and the Mau Mau was in full spate. Caroline, one of the main characters, and her friend Teresa are teenagers at boarding school. But Teresa, daughter of a dyed-in-the-wool racist white settler, falls in love with an African driver, Charles Ondiek, back in the times when mixed couples were frowned upon. Charles manages to fulfil his dream of an Oxford education and returns to Kenya. But Charles's, Caroline's and Teresa's lives become increasingly complicated as their worlds continue to collide. As the story finally brings us up to the present day, there's tragedy, intrigue and terror, the latter in the form of Mwangi, an embittered Mau Mau oath administrator, determined to seek his revenge on Teresa for the sins of her father.

At times I felt the characters could have more depth, it was hard to feel I had got to know them that well, even by the end of the book. However an excellent and unexpected ending gives a satisfactory feel to finishing a book that is well worth packing for an easy holiday read.

 


 


I am honoured to have BREATH OF AFRICA reviewed in my College Brown Book, 2014.

(Reproduced with permission from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford).

 

 In Breath of Africa Jane Bwye draws on her own experience of more than 50 years living in Kenya to tell a story that spans the country’s recent history, from 1954 to 1982, and offers glimpses of its remote past. The novel begins during the State of Emergency, 1952-9, with the British settlers in conflict with members of the Kikuyu tribe known as Mau Mau, and continues through the granting of Independence in 1963 and the rule of the Republic of Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, until his death in 1978 and the succession of Daniel arap Moi, whose presidency was threatened by an abortive military coup in 1982. The latter provides a dramatic turning point in Bwye’s story.

Two characters lead us through these events, demonstrating their impact on the lives of those living in Kenya at the time. Caroline is a privileged white woman – a schoolgirl at the start of the novel – who plans to study at Oxford. Charles, a black farm labourer, has a similar dream and it is he, in the end, who receives the Oxford education. To begin with, these two characters are linked by another white girl, Teresa, who is Caroline’s school friend and Charles’s lover, but as events unfold they develop an independent friendship and the bonds between them become increasingly complicated. Always in the background is Mwangi, detained for six years during the Mau Mau rebellion and intent on enforcing a curse on those whom he blames for his suffering. He represents the darker side of an older magic that threads through the book.

Bwye handles deftly not only the historical and political aspects of this story, but also the social changes that come with the passing decades. At the beginning of the 1960s, Caroline sacrifices her opportunity to study at Oxford in order to sustain her relationship with the man she soon marries; a decade or so later she would probably not have felt she had to make a choice. A little later, as a young widow earning her own living, she is preyed upon by a succession of older, married men – several of them with wives conveniently located back in the UK – who seem to believe that different rules apply overseas. With great resilience Caroline forges her own path, supporting herself, her young son and others whom she draws into their family.

As you may have surmised from this brief description, Bwye covers a lot of ground in her novel. Events are recounted economically: she does not linger or spend time building suspense. A significant character, for example, takes ill, declines and perishes within four pages and we move swiftly on. But I found that I did not mind this because I was taking so much pleasure from other aspects of Bwye’s writing. In particular, she clearly loves the landscape of Kenya and describes it in a way that makes me want to see it, too. During their courtship, Caroline and Brian explore the Kenya Highlands and climb Mount Kenya. Bwye writes vividly of the landscape, the flora and fauna, and the way that ‘the clouds opened windows on the plains below’. She had me rushing to Wikipedia, though, when she described groundsel, which we all know as a low-growing weed, ‘towering over them on stilted stems’!

Alison Gomm.

 


 

If you Googled Christine Nicholls, you would get half a dozen results. But the one who comes from Kenya, is a Historian who wrote the definitive biography of Elspeth Huxley. 

Elspeth Huxley's mother, Nellie Grant, used to entertain us at her home at Njoro, in the Kenya Highlands when I was a child.  Nellie Grant once served up an extraordinary ice cream made with avocado, which I had great difficult forcing myself to eat; I love that fruit, but as a savoury dish only. But I digress…

I met Christine for the first time at an EAWL (East African Women’s League) meeting in London, where David Shepherd, that atmospheric artist whose elephants adorn the walls of many homes, entertained us over lunch.

Christine produces the Society’s newsletters, and also contributes to the popular magazine, Old Africa.

You can imagine my excitement when she agreed to review my book, and I have her permission to reproduce it here.

 ***

Jane Bwye, a member of EAWL (UK), retired businesswoman and intermittent freelance journalist, has written a novel about Kenya in the period 1950-1980.  ‘The book,’ Jane says, ‘means different things to different people; it can be read as a love story, a psychological thriller, or more deeply as an exploration into the interactions of people of different racesSuperstition and Christian faith clash. And the stunning beauty of the country is a major character in itself.

To what extent has she succeeded in her purposes? Perhaps the largest theme is that of superstition. Anyone who lived in Kenya during the thirty years covered by this book knew the power that sorcery exerted on the indigenous mind. We all heard of people who willed themselves to death because they believed themselves cursed. Here the curse is inflicted by a former Mau Mau member who was imprisoned and beaten by prison guards. He harbours an intense hatred of the people who did this to him and curses their descendants. The book traces the calamities which result. Interwoven with that theme is an inter-racial affair that results in a ‘nusu nusu’ or half-white, half-black child. Perhaps a little more could be made of the prejudice that must have been felt by the mother, but one understands that the writer would not want to antagonise some white readers by portraying them as too biased. In fact, she is fair to all races, and good on the tensions of the 1950s and 1960s. The book could only have been written by someone who was there at the time, so deep is its accuracy in assessing the events and feelings of the age. It will be a nostalgic read for ex-Kenyans.

The novel is particularly good at setting the scene. Kenya is described in all its beauty, and the reader is carried along with the characters as they travel through the landscape. We have accurate descriptions of Olorgesailie and the dig north of the Marich Pass. Nairobi Museum is so well described that one can envisage oneself in the room of stuffed birds. The convent girls at the start of the book can only have been those in Loreto Convent, Eldoret. In fact, one suspects that some of the book is autobiographical. Certainly the account of Oxford, where I live, and the life of an undergraduate, can only have been written by someone who was a student there.

This would be a good present for your friends, but do read the book yourself first.

Christine Nicholls.

  

 

 

Sample banner

 

  

ilume

 

My Twitter Updates

Jane Bwye finished Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings by Katharine Johnson and gave it 5 stars https://t.co/d1K4w7NvlQ
Saturday, 21 October 2017 01:51