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Review of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

by M.G. Vassanji

This is my first book of the year, and it took me quite some time to get into it.

Few things annoy me more than when an author decides to ignore such a useful stylistic conventions as using quotation marks to offset dialogue! I like quotation marks. It makes the book easier to parse and gives me a clear idea of who is saying what. I discarded Blindness for similar reasons. Had I not been more favourably disposed to M.G. Vassanji after reading The Assassin's Song, I might have done the same thing.

I have an inkling as to why Vassanji chose this departure from the norm. By abandoning quotation marks—in effect, dialogue itself—everything everyone says comes to us via Vikram and is interpreted and filtered through Vikram. All of the characters speak in Vikram's voice, and his is the only voice in the book for that reason. Still, this was an annoying aspect of The In-Between World that did not encourage me to continue reading.

After about the first third of the book, the story picks up as Vikram moves into adulthood. It's painful. That can be a good thing—and I didn't expect a story of unmitigated happiness here. Vassanji is capturing the zeitgeist in the microcosm of an individual, and seldom is the zeitgeist a wholly good one. Vassanji is careful, however, to portray the bad and the good. It was a time of murder and corruption, but it was also a time of hope and inspiration.

As a depiction of Kenya in the late twentieth century, this book fails to yield the scope required for a detailed understanding of the political dynamics at work. However, the interactions between the characters, particularly between Vikram and his relations, give us an idea of the pressures the external world puts upon everyone in Nairobi. Nairobi is much like the main character: a nexus of European, particularly British worldviews with East African identity and cultures. And that portrayal of personal transformation, of a change of identity as Kenya comes of age and gains independence, is the most rewarding part of The In-Between World.

This book has a perfect title. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall describes precisely what it is about. Vikram is in-between everything and everyone. As an Indian born and raised in Kenya, he is neither an "African" nor an outsider. He is alien to his own country. Among his family, he can never seem to take sides in issues. And in Kenya at large, he becomes a power and money broker, not out of avarice but because he gets caught up in larger affairs.

It's this sense of "going with the flow" and powerlessness that prevents me from sympathizing with Vikram. He only takes responsibility for his actions at the end; that's why he's telling this story, I suppose. It's difficult to criticize this, since it's an intentional component of Vikram's characterization, yet it detracted from my enjoyment of the book. As much as the life of an Indian family in Kenya fascinated me, as much as I cringed at the tragedy of Deepa and Njoroge's love, Vikram's constant disavowal of responsibility looms over the narrative like an approaching storm cloud.

If I have to generalize (and you know I do), I'd say that this is a worthy book. My criticism is subjective, so I don't want to warn people away because I disliked the lack of quotation marks or the characterization of the narrator. There's something in this book that will appeal to everyone, even if few people will find everything about the book appealing. Am I so sure it was worth the Giller? No, but then again, it's probably a good thing that I don't have to decide these matters.


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