For his story of secret revealed in an old diary, M.G. Vassanji was awarded Canada’s Giller Prize. Vassanji, born in Kenya of Indian parents, grew up in Kenya, where the novel is set. The protagonist, Pius Fernandes, is a teacher whose former student gives him a book, found in a storeroom of his shop. It is the pre-World War I diary of a British colonial officer, Sir Alfred Corbin. Fernandes is transfixed by the actual confessions that Corbin recorded, and even more so by what he reads between the lines. In particular, the figure of Mariannu, an Indian woman who had been Corbin’s servant, resonates with Fernandes. Following her marriage to a local merchant named Pipa, she has a son, Ali, who is so light-skinned that he might be white—and suspicions abound that Corbin was his father. Corbin is made to seem an authentic character by references to details of his Colonial Service bureaucratic career, including a meeting with Churchill, both before and after serving in East Africa.
Part of the story veers away from the diary’s content, as Fernandes determines to learn what happened after Corbin stopped writing. The reader is sometime unsure of the voice: is Fernandes speaking of information he has since gleaned? Or has the author provided an omniscient narrator, whose knowledge comes from unrevealed sources? One result is that the reader comes to know Ali and appreciate his quest to learn his parentage, which eventually takes him to England and a confrontation with Corbin. History truly has many gaps that can never be filled, as Vassanji’s technique encourages us to remember. So many loose ends are left untied, however, that the reader often wonders if the information had been foreshadowed earlier but went unnoticed or if the author wants to approximate the uncertainties that actually abound in real life.