Impoverished laborer Ombima steals from his employer’s garden in order to put food on his family’s table. This action leads to his involvement in a forbidden affair, and a downward spiral into greed, jealousy, and backstabbing.
That synopsis notwithstanding, “Forbidden Fruit” is less a tightly plotted tale of lust and revenge, and more a brief documentary of life in a Kenyan village. We see Ombima, his family, and his friends struggle to make ends meet on their wages as tea pickers and casual laborers for the local rich man, and how they are immersed in their concerns about maintaining their houses and their gardens, saving up for a tin roof, maybe going to the local town and catching a show. Their lives are hard, especially by Western standards, and catastrophes like snakebite and illness are always lying in wait for them, but they also enjoy their lives and the beauty and abundance that surround them.
Like much of the African literature I’ve read, which to be honest isn’t very much, the narrative structure of “Forbidden Fruit” differs from what a Western reader would expect. “Forbidden Fruit” is much more like a European/North American novel than some of the other works by African authors I’ve read, but it still has a slightly different sense of pacing, timing, and focus than what the Western reader might expect. The narrative is less structured, in a certain sense, with less foreshadowing and forward impetus. This is not a criticism of the novel, but rather a remark that its priorities are different–it is more interested in presenting the characters’ inner experiences, and giving a “slice of life” impression than it is in driving the plot forward.
What this means is that the reader is allowed to ride along with the characters as they deal with their day-to-day troubles, which range from competition with a rival chorus group, to a gravely ill child and little access to modern medicine. These everyday concerns show these Kenyan villagers as living rich and complex inner lives, without being exoticized or fetishized as they might by a foreign author. We see the good and the bad of their lives–for example, the men largely love their wives, but also treat them as workers to whose labor they are entitled; violence against women is a constantly hovering threat; and Madam Tabitha, the wife of the tea plantation owner, is essentially an African Manic Pixie Dream Girl, upon whom the men in her life heap their desires and problems–and also how, with humans, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A readable and fascinating novel for those looking to add more African literature to their reading diet.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.