Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma wa Ngugi

Last year, I wrote about Mukoma wa Ngugi's Nairobi Heat, seeing it as an interesting, if flawed, first novel. Now Melville House has released Mukoma's second novel, a sequel to the first: Black Star Nairobi, a political thriller that begins as a detective story and ends up taking us from Kenya to Mexico to the U.S. and then back to Kenya at the time of the election crisis of 2007/08.

The writing in Black Star Nairobi is more assured than in Nairobi Heat, and the plot and structure are more ambitious. The ambition is also the novel's curse, because the text is not up to the task of portraying and dramatizing the richness of its worlds and ideas — it's a book that needs to be twice its length or half its plot.

As with Nairobi Heat, our narrator and protagonist is Ishmael, formerly a cop in Maryland, now a private investigator in Nairobi. He and his partner Odhiambo (generally just called O) investigate a mutilated body found in the Ngong Forest, then soon discover it is somehow connected to a bombing at the Norfolk Hotel, a bombing the CIA assumes is by al-Qaeda, but which soon offers evidence of being something else. Through rather convenient plotting, Ishmael, O, and Ishmael's girlfriend/maybe-fiancé Muddy (a performance artist and survivor of the Rwandan genocide) end up on an international chase for the perpetrators, and also on the U.S.'s terrorist list. They encounter various thugs, smugglers, government agents, drug kingpins, hackers, assassins, evil do-gooders, and UC Berkeley professors. Good old Mo, the investigative journalist from Nairobi Heat, makes a cameo appearance. There's probably even a kitchen sink in there somewhere.

Black Star Nairobi ends up being a political conspiracy thriller, but never convincingly so. The characters and events in the conspiracy sections of the book are so sketchy that it's difficult to care much about anything that happens after the team leaves Kenya, a journey that reads like a summary of a Robert Ludlum novel. Until that point, the story is quite engaging, but then momentum trumps everything else, and the characters zip along from place to place and action to action, with no opportunity for anything to be developed except for plot points. And plotting is not Mukoma's strength, so he ends up writing a book where his greatest weaknesses as a writer are at the forefront. (This is true of the narration as well. It's first-person, so there's a tendency for Ishmael to explain everything to us rather than letting us come to conclusions of our own from observing the events. First-person is an excellent way to create a particular voice or to heighten the reader's awareness of narrativity, the circumstances of the writing or storytelling, or the unreliability of individual perception. But if you're not going to do any of that, then first-person is probably, as it seems here, just a way to make exposition sound less awkward than it would in third-person.)

One of the novel's real strengths is its characters: the trio of Ishmael, O, and Muddy is an interesting one, and one I looked forward to catching up with when I opened to the first pages of the book. Despite my frustration with the second half of the novel, I still look forward to more stories about these characters, especially because it seems like Mukoma is becoming a stronger writer with each book — what's good in Black Star Nairobi is better than anything in Nairobi Heat.

One of the distinguishing features of these novels is their political commitment (that Mukoma is the son of Ngugi wa Thiong'o is no surprise in that respect). Black Star Nairobi is a sort of alternate history novel, one in which the Norfolk Hotel is bombed in 2007 (in both our world and that of the novel, it was bombed in 1980), just as tensions are rising around the elections. The question at the heart of the book's conspiracy plot is: What's worse, corrupt politicians or a political vacuum in which outside forces can exert control? Ultimately, the novel suggests that development organizations and terrorist organizations have a lot in common, and self-serving criminals are preferable to ideologues because self-serving criminals are predictable in their behaviors and easier to deal with in their motives.

These are provocative ideas, and great ones to dramatize in a novel, but unfortunately they get weakened by the hither-and-thither, the book's desperate need to keep moving. The jaunting away from Kenya feels obligatory, as if Mukoma thought that since his first novel went from the U.S. to Kenya, he should now create some symmetry and show us the U.S. through Kenyan eyes. The whole journey takes up almost exactly 100 pages of a 262-page book, which is not nearly enough to create any sense of meaningful reality, and vastly too much for a book of only 262 pages to accommodate — each of these chapters feels perfunctory, undercooked. The journey back to Kenya and the resolution of the novel takes up a mere 25 pages. The last few pages are well written, thoughtful, and even emotionally resonant, but much of that resonance was, for me at least, wiped away by the tediously shallow journey through Mexico and the U.S.

My real disappointment with the book is that Mukoma managed to marginalize great material — the scenes during the election violence are terrifying and vivid, the most powerful and wrenching sections of the novel by far. But then we go away, and when the characters come back the violence is over, the compromise government is in place, and it's all explained away in a few sentences. It's hard to avoid imagining the novel that could have been: Ishmael, O, and Muddy staying in Kenya, trying to solve the crime(s) while chaos surrounds them and engulfs their lives. A novel of substance and power, of meaning and import, of vivid details and hard choices and real pain. We get glimpses of that novel. The glimpses are tantalizing, making the actual novel all the more unsatisfying, which is unfortunate, because the first 140 pages or so are engaging and sometimes powerful, and the ideas at the heart of the book are well worth exploring.

Despite my frustrations with Black Star Nairobi, its virtues are the sort that make me look forward to reading Mukoma wa Ngugi's next novel, because I expect that one of these days he's going to be able to put all the pieces together and write a masterpiece. And when he does, I'll shout that book's praises from rooftops.

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