Mrs. Shaw is the third novel by US-based Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi following on from his previous two – Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi. The two were of the crime genre as they followed detectives investigating deaths that are between the US and Africa.
The new book is not genre fiction but follows the story of the people of the republic of Kwatee, an imaginary East African country, going through a transition from a dictatorship to democracy. The people at the centre of the story are based in the Kwatee Republic as well as in the US. In Kwatee, we have Ogum and Sukena, who are part of the Movement to bring to an end the dictatorship that the country is struggling against while in the US we have Kalumba wa Dubiaku, who is in exile.
The book begins in dramatic fashion as Kalumba, the main protagonist, witnesses a massacre of people who were against the government and flees, making his way out of the country by the skin of his teeth. He makes his way to the US, where he bides his time as he hopes to return to his home, his girlfriend Sukena and his best friend Ogum.
He goes quiet as he struggles to make it in the US, dealing with living in exile and having to take care of his financial needs. He is also dealing with his own demons that lead him to injure himself like he was when he was kidnapped and tortured by security forces back home.
Back in Kwatee, his best friend and his lover fall in love and, on the 10th year of the exile, decide to formalise their relationship and get married, introducing a love triangle.
It is in this last year of exile that he meets Mrs. Shaw, who was the widow of Shaw, a notorious District Commissioner who terrorised Kyatuko people before his demise during the independence struggle. They strike up a friendship and he soon meets Melissa, a painter, the daughter of a Puerto Rico dissident. With his diary, we follow his final months in the US as he struggles with his new family, his studies, and his newly discovered income stream as he prepares to return to the land of his birth.
It is at this time that Kalumba decides to communicate with his people back home on his plans to return to home just after the election that would see the end of the dictator’s reign. He would eventually make it home, leading to a dramatic turn of affairs.
In this book, Mukoma decided to write a more overtly political book on an imaginary East African country. This imaginary country can only be Kenya. I’m not sure if it is intentional or in error, but characters in the novel went to Nairobi University (Page 97) and the capital of this imaginary country is Nairobi. Even the number of communities is over 40; the nation listens to rap band Kalamashaka (page 228) during national events. The villagers in Kiamungi are at the centre of controversy after staging a controversial play, not unlike what happened in Kenya in the late 1970s in Limuru.
Mrs. Shaw, who the book is named after, starts as a vivacious older women filled with life and starts to deteriorate over time as Alzheimer’s disease wracks her brain and her body. She has secrets that could bring down a nation, which she shares with our Kalumba.
The writer expertly brings to life the excitement of the inauguration of the new leadership of the Kwatee Republic, which anyone who followed the handover ceremony in Kenya in 2003 will quickly recognise. His description of the victory night when the people of Kwatee finally got rid of the shackles of the dictator brought a tear to my eye as it seemed to be a snapshot of that historic time in 2002 when Kenya got rid of its dictator. It moved be because this is the first time that I saw this period immortalised in prose like it should be.
His grasp of place is also exceptional. He describes places vividly, leaving me picturing places like Madison, Harlem, Kiamungi and the like. I also enjoyed his characters who are neither really good nor really bad but have all of these in varying degrees; very few caricatures are spotted in this novel.
A lot of the book focuses on Kalumba, the exile who grew up in privilege as the son of a headmaster and the twists and turns he goes through as an adulthood in a repressive regime that inflicts pain to him and others. Kalumba has a bit of the tragic Black Panther villain Killmonger as he states on page 134, “You know what I heard last night? Ghosts, Ghosts in the wind, of all those that jumped into that ocean rather than die as slaves.”
My favourite character has to be Ogum. He is the son of the preacher man who has to deal with the loss of his father to a massacre and having to keep the information secret even from his own mother the widow of the dead man. Add to this is his involvement with a deadly love triangle between him, his best friend and his lover.
Would I recommend this book to a reader? Yes. One flaw for me is the casual way the author deals with the country that his characters come from originally. Also the title of the book doesn’t work for the subject title; Mrs Shaw is an important part of the plot but not at its centre. Apart from this, it was one of the most enriching reading experiences I’ve had in months.