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book review

M. G. Vassanji explores history – social, political, ethnic and personal – in his seventh novel, The Magic of Saidaand.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Over the course of a career now spanning seven novels (two of which were awarded the Giller Prize), two collections of short fiction and two non-fiction books (one of which won the Governor-General's Award), Tanzania-raised, Toronto-based M.G. Vassanji seems to have adopted a line from William Faulkner as a guiding principle. For Vassanji, "the past is never dead. It's not even past."

Or, as Vassanji himself writes early in his new novel, "The past is a dangerous business, warned Akilimali; it is best to keep it buried."

Wise advice, but seemingly impossible for the writer to heed.

With his seventh novel, The Magic of Saida, Vassanji continues his ongoing exploration of history – social, political, ethnic and personal – and its lingering effects on the present, how the echoes of nearly forgotten events continue to shape lives and cultures.

The Magic of Saida is the story of Kamal Punja, a well-off, late-middle-aged doctor living in Edmonton (the reader is told, repeatedly, that he is co-owner of three successful clinics there), who returns to his birthplace, Kilwa, a village on the coast of Tanzania. He "came on a mission," in search of the Saida of the title, whom he knew as a child.

As children, Saida and Kamal are brought together by circumstance. Their mothers are friends in Kilwa, both of them without husbands: Saida's father is dead, while Kamal's – himself a doctor, and an Indian – left the family and disappeared. They grow closer when Kamal is enlisted to tutor the girl, who is exceedingly bright, but with little interest in rote learning.

As their relationship grows, Kamal also falls under the thrall of Saida's grandfather, a celebrated poet chronicling the history of east Africa, especially with regard to its conflicts with its colonial overlords, first the Germans, then the English.

Vassanji deftly develops a rich portrait of village life, with its close bonds and closer conflicts. It's a world steeped not only in faith, but in magic. Saida's grandfather, for example, is reportedly in control of a djinn, which contributes to his poems; when the djinn is spurned, it seems to take revenge on the old poet, and is blamed when the man is found hanged.

The world of the past, of Kamal's boyhood in Kilwa, and his forced relocation to Dar es Salaam, where he lives with his father's family to reclaim his Indian heritage, blurs together with Kamal's present-day exodus to Tanzania to try to locate Saida, whom he last saw as he was about to leave for university in Uganda. The narrative is framed and recounted by Martin Kigoma, a Tanzanian publisher, who encounters Kamal in a hospital in Dar es Salaam where he is recovering from what he believes to be poisoning.

It's an interesting narrative approach, and allows for fluid, non-linear storytelling that brings the past and the present, the recounted and the shown, the pedestrian and the magical, into a crystalline narrative immediacy. It's a bravura performance, but subtle and understated. Vassanji isn't a bombastic writer; his prose is rich, but never distracting, multifaceted, but never simply beautiful for its own sake. Rather, everything exists in service of the story he is telling, the characters he is revealing, one incremental sentence at a time.

The Magic of Saida is an expansive, inclusive work, incorporating a capsule history of east Africa, from precolonial times, through years of resistance and accommodation, and past the postcolonial conflicts (including a close encounter with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin); an account of religious conflict; a chronicle of emigration and dislocation; and a vivid examination of contemporary life in Tanzania. All of which could make for a daunting, even prohibitive read, were Vassanji not so deft a writer. In his hands, the material of encyclopedias and non-fiction tomes becomes the vital particulars of life.

At its heart, The Magic of Saida is a mystery novel, the question of what happened to Saida in the past and where she is in the present guiding the narrative through its turns and weaves. When those questions are answered – finally and elliptically – the novel snaps into place with a resounding, heartbreaking clarity. Every element, however seemingly disparate, however seemingly offhand, is revealed to have its place, its weight and significance. Passing comments take on the gravity of oracular pronouncements, subtle references shine with new import.

The Magic of Saida is the sort of novel that, upon finishing, one wants to immediately read again, to examine, to study just how Vasssanji works his narrative magic, and to allow oneself to savour it just that little bit longer. It's simply baffling to me that such a book – that this book – appears on none of the major short lists this fall. It's more than an oversight; it's a crying shame.

Victoria writer Robert J. Wiersema's most recent book is the memoir Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen.