‘The Dragonfly Sea’ by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – a review

★★★★1/2 A rich and vibrantly sensual treat.

This novel is set primarily on the island of Pate, part of the Lamu Archipelago, off the coast of Northern Kenya. It follows the coming of age of Ayaana, a lonely child, set apart from her peers by the status of her mother Munira, unmarried and looked down on by the community. Ayaana’s life changes when a sailor called Muhidin returns after years away at sea. Ayaana decides that he will be her father.

Filled with a sumptuous cast of characters, all deftly drawn, this novel has plenty to offer if you have the time to give yourself over to the lyricism of the style Owuor employs. She does not hurry her narrative, some might say the pace lets the story down, that it could have been told in far fewer words. It is long, but having finished it I feel that a great deal would have been lost had she done so. The sea is central to this narrative, how Ayaana and other characters variously perceive it and interact with it.

The slow pace mirrors the oceans’ currents. It also allows the reader sufficient time to register and really consider the themes that the story encompasses. On the surface it is a rather sad simple tale of a girl growing up. The swirling undercurrents that nourish this arc tackle weighty issues: the radicalisation of African youth; the global race for resources—governments and companies ignoring the wants and needs of those on the ground, using any method to gain an advantage; and notions of identity and how we find it for ourselves.

I loved the way the past, with all its ramifications for the protagonists in the present, was slowly revealed. I loved the understated way Owuor deals with unexplained disappearances, grief and loss. I adored the richness of her characterisations—so vivid and real that they evoked in me strong emotions—and the profound sense of place she evoked in each disparate setting, Pate, Istanbul and China. I loved the way the past, with all its ramifications for the protagonists in the present, was slowly revealed. I loved the understated way Owuor deals with unexplained disappearances, grief and loss.

I wonder whether the ending is too neat? It was the ending I wanted and hoped for and perhaps this places the novel in the category of fairy tale? But don’t adults need fairy tales too?

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