Iman Verjee’s atmospheric Who Will Catch Us as We Fall travels back and forth through the lives of two Kenyans. Leena is the privileged daughter of Indian Kenyans. Michael is the son of a house maid and the grandson of a farmer. We see them as children, as college students, and as young adults and, though them, we see the deep racial and social divides that run through Kenya.
The novel opens as Leena returns to Nairobi after being away at college in London. Though she grew up in the city, its crowds now terrify her. (Something terrible happened to her, but we won’t learn what until much later in the book.) Leena tries to settle back in with her family, to little effect. Too much has happened and she has spent too much time in a different culture for her to go back to her life as it was. It isn’t until she reconnects with Michael, now a political graffiti artist and college student at the University of Nairobi, that she starts to find an equilibrium.
Before too much happens with Leena and Michael’s relationship, the narrative takes us back a decade. Leena and her brother, Jai, are told to befriend Michael, after the boy comes to live with his mother, the family’s maid. This is not the done thing in Kenyan society, for Indians and African Kenyans to mix. The rich Indians keep to themselves and the African Kenyans do the same. Both groups, with few exceptions as presented in Who Will Catch Us as We Fall, are willing to bridge the divide. Most of the characters in this novel are racist, classist, and sexist, in the wearying way that makes one wonder if these hatreds can ever be overcome. In spite of themselves, Leena, Michael, and Jai do become friends, until circumstances drive them all apart again.
In contrast to the hopeful story of the three children, we also see police officer Jeffrey. Jeffrey begins with ideals that are quickly worn away by the matter-of-fact corruption of the rest of the police force. His greed drives him to bigger and bigger schemes, until he finally runs into people who are much scarier than he is. We already know that he had something to do with the terrible thing that happened to Leena from hints dropped in the opening chapters of the book, so tension builds as we wait for his parade of bad choices to collide with her’s.
In addition to the conflicts Verjee has packed into her novel, there is a common question that all characters must ask themselves. Do we go along with the corruption and racism because nothing will ever change? Or do we go against the inertia to change things for the better? Some of the characters vacillate between adjusting their expectations and values to the way things are and actively working to correct injustices. Others, like Jai, keep trying to fight even though they mostly seem to be banging their heads against metaphorical walls. Yet others try for little changes that might make all the difference in the long run.
Because Verjee forces her characters to confront these enormous questions, so must her readers. This is absolutely the kind of book that will make readers wonder what they would do if they were in the characters’ positions. These questions are skillfully woven into an absorbing narrative and never seem didactic. Who Will Catch Us as We Fall is an incredible piece of work.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 August 2016.