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The Book of Secrets
Cover of The Book of Secrets
The Book of Secrets
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The Book of Secrets is a spellbinding novel of generations and the sweep of history which begins in 1988 in Dar es Salaam when the 1913 diary of a British colonial officer is found in a shopkeeper's back room. The diary enflames the curiosity of a retired schoolteacher, Pius Fernandes, whose obsession with the stories it contains gradually connects the past with the present. Inhabiting the story is a memorable cast of characters, part of an Asian community in East Africa, whose lives and fates we follow over the course of seven decades. Rich in detail and description, M. G. Vassanji's award-winning novel magnificently conjures setting and the realm of eras past as it explores the state of living in exile from one's home and from oneself.

The Book of Secrets is a spellbinding novel of generations and the sweep of history which begins in 1988 in Dar es Salaam when the 1913 diary of a British colonial officer is found in a shopkeeper's back room. The diary enflames the curiosity of a retired schoolteacher, Pius Fernandes, whose obsession with the stories it contains gradually connects the past with the present. Inhabiting the story is a memorable cast of characters, part of an Asian community in East Africa, whose lives and fates we follow over the course of seven decades. Rich in detail and description, M. G. Vassanji's award-winning novel magnificently conjures setting and the realm of eras past as it explores the state of living in exile from one's home and from oneself.

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About the Author-
  • M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, and raised in Tanzania. He took a doctorate in physics at M.I.T. and came to Canada in 1978. While working as a research associate and lecturer at the University of Toronto in the 1980s he began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion: writing.

    His first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, and he was invited to be writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The novel's success was a spur, Vassanji has commented: "It was translated into several languages. I was confident that this was what I could do, that writing was not just wishful thinking. In 1989 I quit my full-time job and began researching The Book of Secrets." That celebrated, bestselling novel won the inaugural Giller Prize, in 1994.

    Vassanji's other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991) and Amriika (1999), and Uhuru Street (1991), a collection of stories. His unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant, classical style, his narrative reach, and his interest in characters trying to reconcile different worlds within themselves. The subtle relations of the past and present are also constants in his writing: "When someone asks you where you are from or who you are, there is a whole resume of who you are. I know very few people who do not have a past to explain. That awareness is part of my work."

    M.G. Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean's Honour Roll. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 29, 1996
    Winner of Canada's esteemed Giller Prize, this complex novel is at once a story of the British Empire in Africa and a very postmodern meditation on the allures and pitfalls of narrative. It's set in the racial melting pot of East Africa, where African, Arab, Indian, English and German cultures mesh. The plot has two major strands: the present, in which an Indian-born retired history teacher, Pius Fernandes, discovers a diary written by Alfred Corbin, an English consul stationed in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1913; and the past of the diary entries themselves, whose gaps and omissions Fernandes imaginatively fills with his own narrative. Corbin is posted to Kikono, a small town near Mt. Kilimanjaro, where he falls in love with his housekeeper, Mariamu, a young local woman betrothed to a bumbling shopkeeper. After the marriage, she bears a son, Ali, who has suspiciously light-colored skin and gray eyes. The second part of the novel follows ``dashing'' Ali's adventures as a successful salesman who moves to London with his young wife, Rita, who as a girl was a student of Fernandes's--and with whom he was in love. In the present day, Rita visits Fernandes in Africa and ultimately convinces him to give up his prying into the lives of ``those who've lived a little more intensely than their neighbors.'' The book is lush with evocations of East African physical, cultural and historical landscapes. But energy is lost as Vassanji indulges in discursive tangents about the nature of history at the expense of sustained dramatic storytelling.

  • Citation from The Giller Prize Jury: Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, and David Staines

    "Part generational history, part detective story, part social chronicle, the novel is a 'living tapestry to join the past to the present.'..."

  • The Times (U.K.) "Vassanji captures a wide and authentic perspective that ranks with V. S. Naipaul and Graham Greene."
  • Montreal Gazette "A vivid portrait of time and place."
  • New Yorker "A love affair with the past...an exquisite, tender, and possibly great novel."
  • Quill & Quire "Vassanji is one of the country's finest storytellers."
  • Toronto Star "Vassanji masterfully weaves an extraordinarily colorful and richly complicated carpet....A big book in every sense."
  • New York Times Book Review "A testament to the almost mystical power of written words, Pius Fernandes's search for the truth is also a celebration of storytelling."
  • Lawrence Scanlan, Globe and Mail "As I read this book about exiled people squeezed by war and circumstance, I thought of other novels that seem its cousins; Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter."
  • Financial Post "A poignant, questioning work that confirms Vassanji as one of our most thoughtful, as well as one of our more able, writers."
  • Library Journal "A work of art....Highly recommended."
  • Winnipeg Free Press "A mesmerizing and rewarding literary experience."
  • Financial Times (U.K.) "From its opening page it is clear that The Book of Secrets is a story about the importance of language and writing in shaping history....Vassanji's prose is simple and evocative, with a light touch he recreates places and times, deploying flashes of colour with a careful attention to detail."
  • Publishers Weekly "The book is lush with evocations of East African physical, cultural, and historical landscapes...."
  • Law Times "A glorious novel...."
  • Ottawa Citizen "Fact and fiction are melded into a compelling narrative which transcends reality and nourishes both mind and spirit....[Vassanji] captures both the minute ripples of individual human motivations and the broad sweep of that grim machine we call history."
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