Title: Who Will Catch Us as We Fall
Author: Iman Verjee
Publisher: OneWorld Publications, 2016
Reviewed by: Faith Oneya
Available at: Prestige Bookshop
I have a very soft spot for Kenyan authors so my joy was unbridled when I picked up a copy of Who Will Catch Us as We Fall by Canada-based Kenyan author Iman Verjee.
But my heart sunk a little bit in disappointment when I read the line “Kuwakaribisha Nairobi” (Welcome to Nairobi) in the first page of the first chapter of the book. To put this in context, Leena, one of the main characters in the book, was arriving home in a Kenya Airways Boeing 747 from the United Kingdom and these words allegedly came from the flight attendant.
Not quite a warm welcome, I concluded, seeing that the syntax of the Kiswahili sentence was completely off, and even the most basic speaker of the language would catch that. But this was the first warning sign that there were some levels of disconnect by the author, which she admits in the acknowledgement section when she says:
“When I first began writing this novel, I knew exactly why I was writing it but I was too ashamed to say the reason out loud. The truth is, I felt disconnected from a place I was meant to call home. Yet its smells, colors and noises thrilled me.”
Who Will Catch Us as We Fall traces the lives of three characters –Leena and her brother Jai and Michael, the son of their house help. The author uses racial and tribal stereotypes to bring out the tensions in Kenya and exposes the underbelly of corruption and greed among citizens and policemen.
At first glance, the book seems to focus on pointing a huge, accusatory finger at Kenyan populace but a deeper look reveals the racial tensions, desperation and rebellions that simmer underneath each character and scene.
One of the redeeming qualities in the book lies in the author’s expert use of imagery. Describing a scene where a police officer was salivating over a possible bribe, she writes:
“He saw only her, perfectly polished, like a smoothed down piece of valuable soapstone.”
And of Michael, she says is was as if he “considered each word a thousand times before stringing them together-a perfectly constructed necklace of thought.”
Nairobi’s dirty linen is literally aired in public in Who Will Catch Us as We Fall. The author aptly and artfully describes the sounds, smells, sights and tastes of the city. Nothing is left to chance. You will meet traffic jam and traffic policemen eager to collect bribes from hapless motorists. You will meet street urchins who are unafraid to threaten motorists with urine if they don’t yield to their demands for money. You will meet University of Nairobi student leaders in the middle of protests, among other typically Nairobi scenes. And what’s Nairobi without the pitiful scenes in Kibera where poverty reigns supreme?
Whatever the book lacks in proper Kiswahili phrases, it makes up for in the vivid descriptions of the city.
The affair between Leena and Michael is reminiscent of “My Bukusu Darling”, a love story that grabbed the attention of the Kenyan nation in 2014 when an Asian woman defied her parents and strict traditions because her love for a poor Bukusu man, even moving into his home in Webuye. The tension between Leena and Michael carries on throughout the book and represents the tension of the nation as well from the nineties through to 2007 in the time of post-election violence.
Who Will Catch Us as We Fall is a no frills book that is as much a love tale as it is a political story.