Kenya: Displacement and Discovery in 'The Dragonfly Sea'

Yvonne Owuor's second novel, The Dragonfly Sea, is as much a love letter to Pate Island as it is a coming of age story. Owuor creates a rich image of an island that Ayaana, the novel's main character, says doesn't appear on the map. You will smell the sea, be swayed by its currents and feel the texture of the place with every flip of the page. You'll want to read it while enjoying a cup of spiced tea or coffee.

Yet the novel is not a beach read. It will transport you to other lands, and also break your heart. Thankfully, when the characters are reshaped by the waters and find themselves again, you will also patch yourself together.

The novel deals with the themes of love, displacement and discovery. We meet Ayaana when she is seven years old, spying on strangers while wondering which one could be her father. She lives with her mother, who has been disowned by her family for having a child while unmarried.

As Ayaana is spying on strangers, she doesn't know that someone is watching her as well. Every day before sunrise, she goes to swim in the ocean. Always watching from his balcony is a man called Muhidin. He lacks a sense of belonging until he sees the little girl.

"Nothing had suggested the vision of 'home' or 'belonging' until that light-splattered dawn when he glimpsed a little creature dancing with the sparkling Pate sea." The two strike up an unlikely friendship and Ayaana chooses him to be her father.

As Ayaana grows up, the island gets bored of gossiping about them and their peculiarities. Her family finds some semblance of a rhythm of existence. That is until the ocean disrupts their lives and they have to find a new way of being.

The structure of the novel mimics the currents of the ocean - at times charged and at times calm - never moving in a linear fashion. Owuor doesn't shy away from politics either as her characters talk of unscrupulous Kenyan politicians, and some are labelled terrorists and imprisoned without trial.

If there is a weakness, it is the unnatural dialogue that occurs on minor occasions, most noticeable when the Chinese emissaries and Kenyan officials meet with Ayaana's mother. But this is a minor quibble in a mesmerising rendering of a little talked about island and its people.

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