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by M.G. Vassanji

The strength of M.G. Vassanji’s new novel, his first since 1994’s The Book of Secrets, is that it has the urgency of television news. That is its fatal weakness too, for like television news, it manages to be sensational while remaining curiously flat and unengaging. Perhaps that is the danger of event-based narrative.

The beginning, though, is promising. There are tantalizing mysteries – why is our hero alone and bewildered, what is the “instant of notoriety” he refers to, why does he suffer “the probing attentions of a certain representative of the law,” who are the three college-aged kids who have him under benign surveillance? And then we jump back to 1968.

Ramji, our hero, and his friend Sona are two scholarship students from Dar es Salaam plunged into the radical upheavals of 1960s America, and Vassanji is particularly good at delineating the delicate mixture of idealism and smug certainties that made the young people of the day so irritating and so appealing. He is also good at the plight (and pleasures) of the immigrant/innocent abroad in America’s careless affluence and benign amorality (Ramji loses his virginity to the cancer-afflicted wife of his American host family).

What Vassanji is not good at is making us care – about Ramji, about the woman he marries, the (different) woman he loves, the friends, the colleagues, and the politics that sweep him along to the very periphery of terrorism. It is Vassanji’s endlessly flat, one-thing-after-another style that distances us – the characters develop all the nuance and complexity of the people in a breaking news story. The frequently essay-ish tone (“But as subsequent events went on to prove…”) doesn’t help either.


Reviewer: Gerald Hannon

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 384 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-8723-3

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1999-12

Categories: Fiction: Novels

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