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The In-Between World of Vikram Lall [Paperback]

M.G. Vassanji
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 14 2004
Double Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a haunting novel of corruption and regret that brings to life the complexity and turbulence of Kenyan society in the last five decades. Rich in sensuous detail and historical insight, this is a powerful story of passionate betrayals and political violence, racial tension and the strictures of tradition, told in elegant, assured prose.

The novel begins in 1953, with eight-year-old Vikram Lall a witness to the celebrations around the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, just as the Mau Mau guerilla war for independence from Britain begins to gain strength. In a land torn apart by idealism, doubt, political upheaval and terrible acts of violence, Vic and his sister Deepa must find their place among a new generation. Neither colonists nor African, neither white nor black, the Indian brother and sister find themselves somewhere in between in their band of playmates: Bill and Annie, British children, and Njoroge, an African boy. These are the relationships that will shape the rest of their lives.

We follow Vikram through the changes in East African society, the immense promise of the fifties and sixties. But when that hope is betrayed by the corruption and violence of the following decades, Vic is drawn into the Kenyatta government’s orbit of graft and power-broking. Njoroge, his childhood friend, can abandon neither the idealism of his youth nor his love for Vic’s sister Deepa. But neither the idealism of the one nor the passive cynicism of the other can avert the tragedies that await them.

In interviews given when the novel was published, Vassanji commented that The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is the first of his books to deal with his memories of Kenya, where he spent the first 5 years of his life: “I remember these images of fear, of terror. And I thought I had to come back to that and see the whole Mau Mau episode from the Asian point of view. I had never written a book set in Kenya, where my father was from. And when I did, I just felt good about it, because I was going back to one part, one of many homes.”

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a compelling record in the voice of a character described as “a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning,” took three years to write. After research in Kenya and Britain, M.G. Vassanji devoted himself to the novel in a dark office at the University of Toronto. It was a hard process of creation and discovery, especially as Vassanji is an assiduous editor of his own work: “I come back to it over and over. For me, it’s like working on a sculpture. You sort of chip away a bit at a time until you tell yourself it’s as perfect as you can make it.” Vassanji’s fifth novel met with immense Canadian and international success. As well as making him the first author to win the Giller Prize twice, the book was a #1 national bestseller.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a profound and careful examination of one man’s search for his place in the world; it also takes up themes that have run through Vassanji’s work, such as the nature of community in a volatile society, the relations between colony and colonizer, and the inescapable presence of the past. It is also, finally, a deeply personal book:

“The major thing that stands out in the book is people who are in-between. The feeling of belonging and not belonging is very central to the book. And that also played out in my life. When we lived in Tanzania we belonged and did not belong because we had come from Kenya. That has been a major thread in my life.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Prizes and Awards: Giller Prize 2003

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From Amazon

Young Vikram Lall's in-betweenness as an Indian in Kenya is brought home to him when he and his sister Deepa become close friends with an African boy, Njoroge, and two English children, Bill and Annie. It is 1953, and while the Lall family celebrates Queen Elizabeth's coronation, Mau Mau rebels are slaughtering white families to protest against British colonial rule, aided by "faithful" African servants and even Indian sympathizers like Vikram's beloved Manesh Uncle. In that tempestuous "year of our loves and friendships," eight-year-old Vikram is initiated into a confusing world of contradictory loyalties and agonizing losses. The shifting moral and political sands of that in-between world will define everything Vikram comes to experience, eventually (as he says on the first page) causing him to be "numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning."

Despite this unappealing description of himself, the unheroic hero of M.G. Vassanji's new novel has an engaging voice and an absolutely riveting story to tell. Hiding from his enemies in an obscure Ontario village, he traces the entangled narrative lines that led him to this dangerous and compromised state, quixotically hoping at the end to blaze a new trail towards "truth and reconciliation" in Kenya. In the tradition of the finest political novels, Vassanji filters the hopes and disappointments of the emerging nation through the familiar lenses of family, friendship, passion, despair, and grief. In his moving accounts of Bill and Annie's lost innocence, Njoroge's and Deepa's secretive romance, and Vikram's entrapment in ethical quicksand, Vassanji portrays a country torn apart by ethnic differences and corruption. Carefully poised between humane tenderness and jaded cynicism, between the imperative to name names and the impulse to forgive, Vikram Lall's multigenerational narrative is at once hauntingly sad and generously humane. Vassanji's return to the East African setting of his Giller Prize-winning Book of Secrets is an artistically triumphant one. The In-between World of Vikram Lall ranks with his very best work. --John C. Ball --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

As an Indian child growing up in 1950s Kenya, Vikram Lall is at the center of two warring worlds—one of childhood innocence, the other "a colonial world of repressive, undignified subjecthood" in which the innocent often meet with the cruelest of fates. He passes his early days in Nakuru playing with his sister, Deepa, their neighborhood friend Njoroge, and English expatriates Annie and Bill Bruce. Though Vic is third-generation African, he understands that Njo is somehow more Kenyan than he or his family will ever be. Police regularly raid Nakuru looking for Mau Mau rebels, who are terrorists in the eyes of Europeans, but freedom fighters to native Kenyans; one day tragedy strikes the Lall family's English friends. Haunted by a grisly description of the crime scene, the Lalls eventually pick up and move to Nairobi. Fast-forward to 1965, when Kenya has achieved independence and Mau Mau sympathizer Jomo Kenyatta is now the president of the nation. Njo, who worshipped Jomo from an early age, is a rising star in the new government. He tracks down the Lalls in Nairobi and begins an innocent courtship of Deepa, much to her parents' chagrin. Meanwhile, Vic continues to allow his memory of young Annie to define his life and, as a result, makes some morally ambiguous judgments when he lands a position in the new government. Telling his story from Canada, where he fled after getting top billing on Kenya's "List of Shame" as one of the most financially corrupt men in his country, Vic is a voice for all those who wonder about the price of the struggle for freedom. Vassanji, who was the 2003 winner of Canada's Giller Prize, explores a conflict of epic proportions from the perspective of a man trapped in "the perilous in-between," writing with a deftness and evenhandedness that distinguish him as a diligent student of political and historical complexities and a riveting storyteller.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read Jan. 12 2004
By A Customer
Vassanji's narrative of the history and cultures in Kenya are extremely interesting. He depicts a very realistic portrait of life during those times. The only problem I had with this book was the slow beginning which was hard to read through. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses the change within Vikram, the main character in this novel and his inability to come to terms with his loss of innocence as a young child. Those devestations that taunt him even as an adult underlay the reasons why he has become who he is in the later parts of the novel. Vikram's character is truly perplexing and worth the read of this award winning book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read Feb. 24 2005
By Edwin
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is fascinating story about Vikram, an ethnic Indian, as he grapples with the history and cultures in Kenya . Vassanji gives a good depiction of life during colonial Kenya , of how the hero came to lose his innocence as a young child and of how he came to terms with his new life. In the end, Vikram a rich but perplexing character. As someone who has lived in Africa and grappled with the different cultures and histories, I can relate to this story.
Also recommended: The Usurper and Other stories, Kill me quick, Disciples of Fortune, A Blade of Grass
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4.0 out of 5 stars Quality stuff, but not a quick read June 19 2004
I have lived in east Africa, and I have enjoyed this author before, so I read this. It is not as compelling as I had hoped, but it has a strength about it that makes it a good read.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Home is ... where? June 24 2008
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Vikram Lall, the narrator of this engrossing story, looks back over the last fifty years of his life. From the safety of his self-imposed exile in Canada, he takes the reader through a selection of pertinent years. The choices are years that were pivotal in his personal life and intimately linked in the historical development of his home country of Kenya. The passage of time allows him to describe the people and events in a dispassionate voice which affects the reader deeply. While not openly self-critical, he paints an honest and detailed portrait of himself. Addressing the reader directly at the outset, he asks us to form our opinion on whether or not his reputation as "one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning" is justified. The result is a multi-layered novel of extraordinary depth, rich with memorable characters, dramatic action and a high level of authenticity in its representation of the environment and the realities of the time. Intimately familiar with cultural context - being from the same ethnic Indian-Kenyan background as his principal characters - as well as the political circumstances, Vassanji has created a panorama that seamlessly merges historical realities with his characters' private dramas in broad, yet precisely placed strokes.

Kenya's struggle for independence from Britain, spearheaded by the Mau Mau movement, brought danger to all ethnic groups. Young Vikram and his sister Deepa, while protected by their caring family, are pulled into the drama when violence hits close to home. The family's store is the centre of their lives: well connected not only within the Asian community, but also with regular British customers. The African Kenyans living around the Asian estate are tolerated rather than respected.
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