“Grass Shoots” covers an interconnected group of people in modern-day Kenya as they negotiate the country’s ups and downs. The title refers to a charitable organization that one of the characters organizes, and suggests the novel’s hopeful message, that of change that begins at the local level and grows upwards, spreading out across the country and the world like spring grass.
The novel’s characters are a diverse group, as befits a book that wants to convey the essence of modern Kenya, with its ethnic and ecological richness. The story roughly centers around Emily, a young African woman who comes to Nairobi to make her way in the world. She develops close relationships with Paul (white), the son of the woman who raised Emily after she was orphaned by the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent, and Sam (biracial), who was also taken in by Emily’s adoptive mother after his own mother died and his father disappeared following the political upheavals of 1982. Meanwhile, a second narrative thread follows Ouma, Sam’s estranged father, who has been forced to go underground and is only now re-emerging into society and reconnecting with his family. All the characters are brought together by the village of Amayoni and the Grass Shoots charity.
The large cast of characters and the long time span covered–from 1998 to 2015–means that individuals are often only lightly penciled in rather than fully fleshed out, although Emily is full of individuality and charm, and events, even momentous ones, are often blips rather than major plot points. However, the main focus of this novel seems not to be so much the characters per se as it is Kenya itself, its beauty and its troubles. Descriptions of the Kenyan landscape and wildlife are rich and lyrical, and the reader is clearly allowed to see what a vibrant, multi-cultural country modern Kenya is. This effect is heightened by the frequent use of Swahili words, which are glossed in the back of the book for those who don’t enjoy independent dictionary work as much as I do!
The thorny question of how to help with the poverty and corruption that trouble Kenya is also a major point in the work, as the African characters struggle (for legitimate reasons) to trust the Europeans who genuinely want to help out, and the Europeans struggle to figure out how they can do more good than harm with their money and enthusiasm. “Grass Shoots” is not as character-driven as this kind of sprawling family saga tends to be, but it’s a fascinating and loving look at contemporary Kenya, both the bad and the good.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
You can get your own copy here: Grass Shoots: A tender African Love Story
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