This is a review of a novel, The Names of Things by John Colman Wood, AshlandCreekPress.com, 2012.
This novel, set for the most part in northern Kenya among the Gabra people, is essentially a meditation on mourning. The plot is fairly simple. The protagonist, an anthropologist, goes to Kenya to live with and study the Dasse (apparently the Gabra’s name for themselves). HIs wife, an artist, goes along reluctantly. While he studies (and reflects upon the culture he is immersed in), she paints and contracts AIDS, perhaps from tainted blood, perhaps from sex. Back in the states she dies and he is lost. So he returns to Kenya to mourn, to find closure, and perhaps a way forward.
All of this occurs against the back drop of the dry desert landscape of northern Kenya where nomadic life is tough and where the modern world has made little entry. Our anthropologist (who is never named) continues to chronicle the cultural life of the Dasse, especially their death customs, as he tries to make sense of his own loss. He slowly transforms from observer to participant, but yet can never cross the cultural divide. Pitted against inhospitable terrain and loneliness, his final quest is an individual one.
Needless to say this is kind of an odd novel. There are lots of ruminations about life and death, and the nature of relationships, all of it offset by the stark reality of nomadic life and the understandings, misunderstandings and just plain confusion that an outsider brings to people he encounters. Yet the presumably accurate descriptions of what that life is and how people cope make the tale compelling.
I am perhaps the rare reviewer who has actually traveled through the region so aptly depicted in the novel. Although I had little contact with the inhabitants, the geography and physical descriptions are accurate. Readers curious about Kenya, about nomadic life and non-western cultures will find this an interesting story. I did.