By Lucie Britsch
THE HOUSE OF RUST
By Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
272 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.
“The House of Rust” is an astonishing fiction debut and (deservedly) the inaugural winner of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, awarded to first novelists from that continent. It follows Aisha, a Hadrami girl in Mombasa, Kenya, whose fisherman father has vanished. Known affectionately as a “fishling,” Aisha determines to find him before the end of five days, when he’ll be declared dead. Aisha is convinced he’s still alive, and with the aid of a talking cat she sets sail in a magical boat made of bones, as one does, battling an array of sea monsters along the way.
Aisha is everything you want in a heroine: cunning and headstrong, but also fallible. “You are clumsy,” the cat tells her, “but you have the beginnings of a poem, absurd feeling anguishing in translation.” He wouldn’t wish a poet’s soul on anyone, though: “They grieve for grace, they destroy their hearts with their own hands.” Every sentence of this novel could be a verse.
There are stories within stories here, bursting with truth and wisdom, honoring the rich oral traditions of the Hadrami. “Better blind than to be deaf or dumb,” one sea creature says, telling Aisha the protracted, moving tale of how she knows the fisherman. “A mouth needs to utter prayers and to speak, the ear to take in conversation. It must, it must, or the mind, the spirit, dies.”
Bajaber is a born storyteller, pulling you along Aisha’s epic quest to know her father’s fate. She punctuates the pathos with knowing humor, as when Aisha poses as a “keeper of histories” before the fearsome monster Baba wa Papa, or Father of the Shark. “What historian follows a fisherman?” he challenges her. “One in love with story-craft,” Aisha lies. “He is a character in the story. … I must find him so I know how that story ends.”
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