Pain and the Secrets: Book Review





This story follows Lily, a begotten child to destitute parents in Western Kenya. Breathtakingly beautiful, Lily doesn’t fail to draw the interest of Barasa, a fellow village boy and childhood friend with whom she transitions from childhood to adulthood.

Years later, as she awaits to join University, Lily takes a job as a house girl to a family in Mathare slums, Nairobi. This period, coinciding with Kenya’s 2007 elections, and its bloodbath aftermath will forever leave painful scars on her body and mind. The most permanent scar being a son; a son she oscillates between hating, loving and tolerating. A son whose father remains part of the mystery driving the plot. The ordeal scars her and her perception of men.

When she finally joins the University of Nairobi, fate places on her path a man, Juma. A man whose kindness she thinks she understands. A man who gives her all she needs; a man whose wealth she thinks is enough to solve all her problems A married man who, in her presence, temporarily forgets he is supposed to be married. At first she is driven to him by the desire to survive and provide for her son and aging and sickly parents. But when she has a taste of the good life, she craves more. And more cravings for good things drowns her ambitions; it drowns her relationships with her family and peers. She gets swallowed by campus life and peer pressure to keep a high end lifestyle she cannot maintain.

Among Lily’s love interests in campus is Tom. A dedicated Tom -ah, he’s the model of dedication. Even before he’s promoted to ‘boyfriend’ status, even when he knows about other men in Lily’s life, he does not allow the wave of jealousy to dwindle his hope. His is the kind of dedication that borders on stupidity (no offence Tom, he’s a dashing and kind young man). Just when things start looking up for Lily, as the men in her life offer what her family or friends can’t, as she starts to ‘enjoy life’, another tragedy hits. A cancerous tragedy.

Lily’s story is narrated alongside that of her environment; that of her country, in a way that makes the physical context part of the characters in the story. It is the story of a country that has ‘set itself on fire’ as Yvonne Owuor narrates in ‘Dust’. The text offers:

“There was a young man who was being rushed to the theatre, unconscious; his clothes soaked in blood. Halima learnt that the man had been hacked with a machete at a campaign rally after two opposing sides clashed. The wife of the young man ran after them, a young child nestled tightly on her chest. None of the politicians the young man was fighting for trailed behind the young woman.”

Sobering details, especially in the face of this year’s elections. Details we should never relegate to memory; they should be active in our consciousness. The text takes cognisance of the political shapings that have defined Kenya’s trajectory – leaning on the past elections and their aftermath – the fear, loss of lives and property. Even as we Kenyans vote, this book is a reminder of the unhealed wounds that can so easily be pierced yet again, if we don’t watch ourselves. May we never forget PEV 2007/8. May we never set our country on fire again.

I enjoyed the storytelling aspects, and how the author breaks your heart with untold misery but graciously grants hope. Perhaps also being my alma mater, I highly related to the setting, The University of Nairobi, which might have offered a different, more relatable reading experience for me.  I also loved how genuinely informative the text is by placing the context within happenings in different parts of the world – so that as you read, you are informed, especially in the political space. It also takes you on tours together with the characters; tours to the Kenyan coast, to South Africa, to Zanzibar, Morocco. It is also an education about breast cancer; the symptoms, the prevention, and the powerful pronouncement that cancer doesn’t necessarily equate a death sentence –especially when detected early on.

This book is so rich. It takes us through campus and national politics, and the intricacies of relationships. It is also an expose on corruption among state players and entities and how costly that is to the citizens. There’s infidelity, lots of it, but there’s also redemption. There’s hate, but there’s also love. There’s poverty, lots. But there’s also hope. In essence, there are all the spices that make life what it is – a canvas upon which all these things write themselves to enrich the human experience.

I was drawn to the complexities of parental-child relationships. And the irony of the centrality of children in parents’ lives against the centrality of parents in an illegitimate child’s life. But the ‘real’ big secret is not just who Jim’s father is but who Juma’s father is.  In the end, when Lily’s greatest mystery –Jim’s father finally presents himself to her people, guilty as charged, Lily is nowhere to be found.

Try it, it is a story you’ll enjoy. You’ll be angry with the characters yet empathize with them. You’ll be angry at how political leaders constantly fail the citizens but you’ll also be inspired to do better, to vote better.

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