The Fiction Fox
Review: Place of Cool Water - Ndirangu Githaiga
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Bon Esprit Books, August 2023
My Rating: 3/5 stars
“I see you’re one of those people who feel they have to be able to reciprocate any kindness they’re about to receive. But what if you have nothing to give yet still need help? What then?”
A young man embarks on a journey to Nairobi, Kenya, in order to pay homage to a childhood hero, and unwittingly ends up in an adventure of mistaken identities and retracing his own roots, in this third literary fiction novel by traveling author Ndirangu Githaiga.
Jude grew up with his adoptive family, as one of the few black kids within the quaint town of Clarksville, USA. He enjoyed a worry-free childhood with a loving family, longtime friends and low-stake adventures with his fellow- Boy Scouts. Now 27, his life is shaken up by the sudden death of his childhood friend Connor following a short uphill battle with cancer. Inspired by one of their final conversations about their shared hero from their Boy-Scout days, as well as Connors deathbed advise to “not postpone anything”, Jude sets off on a journey to Kenya to honour both of them by visiting their hero’s final resting place in Nairobi. Along the way, he finds more than he bargains for. Hero’s fall in the light of new discoveries, mistaken identities uncover hidden truths, and an unexpected friendship with a local hotel manager places his own roots in a different light.
What I liked:
Pulled along by the very readable narrative voice and the fast moving plot, I finished this novel within one day, and had a very good time throughout. Although a character-driven story at heart, the star of Place of Cool Water is its vibrant cultural, environmental and political setting of Kenya, which leaps of the pages to greet you. It makes for the perfect background to host the many themes the novel touches upon, including race, discrimination, privilege and the lingering feeling of mistrust brought upon by the political upheaval and terrorist threats in the country. Although the novel doesn’t quite have the scope and length to unpack all these topics completely, it still put them at the front of my mind for days and had me thinking about this book for days after finishing it. Key here are the contrast and similarities between Jude and Qadir, that Githaiga uses to maximal effect.
Githaiga manages to keep the novel light and readable, with a likable cast and a good balance of elements of character-work, political- and cultural themes, mystery and some quite suspenseful scenes.
What I didn’t like:
The novel unfortunately suffers from a lack of balance in many other aspects, including pacing, and the attention of detail between different characters and themes. The synopsis makes Jude and Qadir out to be dual-protagonists, when that does not reflect the content of the book at all. This truly is Jude’s story, with him taking up about 80% of the page-time, leaving Qadir to be little more than a side character. Considering the reveal at the end, I really would’ve liked to have seen more development of Qadir and his background.
Speaking of the reveal; a rushed, exposition-filled and very abrupt ending strongly took away from my enjoyment. The pacing at the end only seems to pick up speed, in stark contrast with the start. A major development is dropped within the final pages, leaving no more room for us to see the characters react and grow from it.
Overall, Place of Cool Water is an easy book to recommend; it’s compact and well-written and its themes will make it a great candidate for book club-discussions and the like. For readers who prefer to listen, rather than read visually, the audiobook is great as well. The narrator has a very pleasant tone and I personally loved to hear the pronunciation of the Swahili sentences sprinkled throughout the text.
Aforementioned balancing-issues and the abrupt ending kept it from rising “good” into “great” for me personally, hence the 3-star rating.
Many thanks to Bon Esprit Books for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Find this book here on Goodreads.