Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s lyrical and surprising debut novel, which won the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, is a magical coming-of-age saga about a Hadrami girl from Mombasa, Kenya, and the dangerous sea voyage that changes the course of her life.
When her fisherman father goes missing at sea, Aisha, unwilling to believe he’s dead, sets out to rescue him. She’s aided by a scholarly talking cat, who summons a boat made of bones. Sailing into the unknown, Aisha battles several sea monsters—and the sea itself—before finally bringing her father home.
Back in Mombasa, she finds the shape of her old life no longer fits. Awakened to the existence of a dangerous and alluring new world, her simmering desire for adventure and independence becomes impossible to ignore. Rebelling against the pressure to get married and settle down, she is drawn into the lives of the magical creatures who inhabit Mombasa, including talking crows and ancient spirits.
The House of Rust can be disorientating at first. Bajaber’s prose is lush but dizzying; it’s easy to get lost among the many names, overlapping stories and shifts in perspective. But that disorientation is also the book’s strength. Aisha, too, is disoriented, caught between two worlds, navigating the familiar roads and markets of Mombasa and the unfamiliar language of powerful crows. With remarkable skill, Bajaber, who is a Kenyan writer of Hadrami descent, navigates the novel’s duality, rendering it both a realistic drama about familial expectation, lineage and grief, as well as a darkly whimsical adventure about monsters who hold grudges and the courage it takes to face your fears head-on.
There’s a fablelike quality to Bajaber’s prose, vividly capturing the pulse of magic that runs just beneath the surface of everyday lives. A cat offers meditations on willpower, while other characters deliver beautiful monologues like something out of a fairy tale. But even at the story’s most surreal and strange moments, Bajaber grounds the tale in the contemporary world of Mombasa, with its rich blend of Hadrami and Swahili cultures.
Enchanting and sometimes delightfully odd, full of lush descriptions and the rhythms of the sea, The House of Rust is, at heart, a remarkable book about a fiery young woman determined to steer her own course, no matter how many monsters she has to face along the way.