By Jacob Oketch
Empress Ciku Kimani Mwaniki’s latest book, titled A Cocktail of Unlikely Tales, is a collection of, as she rightly puts it, novellas because these stories are long. However, that does not prevent the author from deftly employing the suspense in some of them – to great effect. For instance, in the story, ‘Game of Marbles’, readers are inundated by the endless marital tribulations of Mbogo and the eccentricities of Ras to the extent that one would expect the story to end definitively, but at the end of the story, readers are left with many unanswered questions.
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The author explores various themes in the stories, but the overarching one is Covid 19, woven around other day-to-day life themes. Relationships are a major thematic concern where the author explores various relationships. Within relationships, other themes emerge, including heartbreak, betrayal, racial discrimination, racial tolerance, poaching, corruption, and drug abuse, among others.
The author has gone out of her way to humanise prostitution. The message here is that even though the practice of prostitution is morally reprehensible, those who engage in it are also human beings who have hopes, dreams and feelings like everybody else. The author does not encourage it but looks at these people’s lives in a bid to understand where they are coming from.
The way the author weaves the story of COVID around other stories leaves the reader with nostalgia about the gone days of masking, social distancing and the dread of coughing in public. This portrayal of the situation by the author serves an important function; even though COVID was contained, we should not take for granted the good things in life because they can be yanked away from us just as COVID did in those times. The memorialisation of COVID-19 is one important thing that writers are doing, and the author of this collection is not left behind.
The author has also demonstrated some versatility when it comes to settings. One of the stories has multiple settings where the protagonist spends some years out of the country in a slum in South Africa called Soweto. When he returns to Kenya, he rents an apartment next to the beach at the coast. In another story, the main setting is the train, but even within the train, there are other distinctly separate settings: the students dancing and drinking in the train, the Christian women in their corner and the lone woman who strikes up a conversation with a solo male traveller.
The characters in the story are relatable and believable; readers will be familiar with the girl who loses her job due to COVID-19 and gets involved in peddling drugs to make ends meet. Even the dreadlocked fellow who looks like a nobody but is highly learned and stays in a posh place is a familiar occurrence in our neighbourhoods.
The author avoids the monotony of narration by employing dialogue in the stories. Her narration and description are so good that it keeps the reader reading. Dialogue is limited to specific situations such that almost all the stories are anchored on description and narration. There is a deliberate attempt by the author to use other narrative voices other than the stream of consciousness. This ensures that the stories are not monotonous.
This collection is an important addition to the documentation of COVID-19 19 but also addresses pertinent societal issues. It is captivating and didactic at the same time. Copies of the book are available at Nuria bookstore along Moi Avenue in Nairobi and from the author herself.