Book: The Book of Secrets

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The Book of Secrets: A Novel

Author: M.G. Vassanji
Publisher: Picador

Like the novels of Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, and Ben Okri, The Book of Secrets concerns Africa—in this case, the Asian community of East Africa, a rich nexus of English, Arab, Indian, and African cultures.

The novel begins in 1988 when the 1913 diary of Alfred Corbin, a British colonial administrator, is found in an East African shopkeeper’s backroom. The diary—and the secrets it both reveals and conceals—enflames the curiosity of retired schoolteacher Pius Fernandes. Pius’s obsessive pursuit of history leads him on an investigative journey through his own past and a nation’s.

Vasanji brings to vivid life the landscapes, the towns, and the cities of East Africa from the days of the Great War, through independence, all the way to the close of the eighties. Rich in detail and character, pathos and humor, and evocative of time and place, The Book of Secrets juxtaposes different cultures and generations and tells us something fresh about the nature of storytelling.


Winner of the first Giller Prize for Canadian fiction in 1994, The Book of Secrets is an outstanding historical novel set in East Africa. The best of M.G. Vassanji’s early novels, it transforms the history of South Asians in Kenya and Tanzania from 1913 to 1988 into an elegantly written and totally absorbing narrative that is part love story, part war story, part mystery, part national history, and part journey of self-discovery.

When retired history teacher Pius Fernandes finds the 1913 diary of Alfred Corbin, a British colonial officer, he vows to tell the story of the slim, brittle book and its owners over the years. Pius vividly recreates the colonial world of the inexperienced Corbin and the fragile Indian-African community under his rule. In atmospheric prose rich in local colour, Vassanji imagines a cast of varied and convincing characters, from the tough-talking spy Maynard and the spiritual leader Jamali to the mysterious and tragic beauty Mariamu and the jet-setting movie-star look-alikes Ali and Rita. At the heart of the story are the feisty shopkeeper Pipa and his son Aku (whose true father is the central secret in The Book of Secrets). Pius’s research eventually leads him to tell his own story of immigration and longing, and finally to a re-evaluation of who he is. Straddling the colonial and the post-independence eras, The Book of Secrets compassionately explores the ambiguous identities of Indian and British migrants in East Africa. In the process it puts a very human face on a little-known side of Africa’s tempestuous past, as well as asking searching questions about the ways in which history is gathered and told and to whom history’s stories really belong. —John C. Ball

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