Monday, October 29, 2012

Bridging Cultural Gaps

Following is my review of :
The Outsider(s)
By Caroline Adhiambo Jakob, Author House, Bloomington, IN, 2012
This fascinating first novel by a Kenyan author is based on cultural clashes, perceptions and misperceptions as experienced by several women.  Indeed the story provides some keen insight  - often amusing, but occasionally sad  - into how folks on different sides of the culture divide react.
Structurally the novel chiefly follows two women, one starting as an impoverished Kenyan living hand-to-mouth in a Nairobi slum and the other a sophisticated German who succeeded in business by cut- throat back-stabbing practices.  To add to her woes the German also comes from a dysfunctional family where the mother intimidates and castigates her daughters.   The initial descriptions of hard life in Nairobi for Philister ring true and one can understand her desperation.  Soon she escapes to Germany only to find life there almost equally austere, but complicated by her illegal status, lack of German language, and racism.  Even as Philister’s story unfolds, Irmtraut’s is also underway.  An unhappy bitter woman, she opts for a sideways promotion and gets sent to Nairobi.   Thus, the two women are both outsiders in cultures that neither understands or appreciates (hence the title).

The strength of the novel is based on how the two women struggle and adapt to their new surroundings.  Philister is struck by bleakness of European life where common courtesies, hospitality and friendships are absent.  Yet she struggles on eventually staying for some twenty years all the while coping with racism and a profound sense of not belonging.   As an ironic twist, even some of the Africans she meets along the way have adopted European selfishness and disdain.   Irmtraut too is a fish out of water in Kenya. Since her approach to life is diametrically opposite, she cannot understand why people are friendly and accommodating without ulterior motives.

Of course, eventually the two women’s lives become intertwined as they cope with life’s issues and become more attuned to their surroundings. 

There are certainly some caricatures in this novel – I thought the Germans were a bit overblown -   and the plot requires some considerable leaps in order to come to a satisfactory ending. Nonetheless, all the characters are interesting and the setting is excellent.  Readers who have lived in both worlds will nod knowingly each time someone gets frustrated or puzzled either by European or African peculiarities.

The author Caroline Adhiambo Jakob, a Kenyan national married to a German, has a foot in each camp and she writes convincingly about each. The Outsider(s) is an entertaining and enjoyable read.