The Book of Secrets

Written by M.G. Vassanji
Review by Lucinda Byatt


The “Book of Secrets” represents the stolen diary of a British colonial administrator, Sir Alfred Corbin, who arrived in Mombasa in 1913. Many years later the diary is found in the dirty backroom of an old shop and shown to Pius Fernandes, a retired Goan schoolteacher living in modern Dar es Salaam, who decides to recreate the world described by the book, and to “breathe life into the many spirits captured in its pages… and tell their stories.” He unwittingly also makes discoveries that have affected his own life and hidden longings. “I would construct a history, a living tapestry to join the past to the present, to defy the blistering shimmering dusty bustle of city life outside which makes transients of us all.”

This is a haunting book, spanning generations and key moments of East African history: the outbreak of the First World War, the 1960s and Tanzanian Independence, and the late 1980s. It introduces a memorable cast of characters: Mariamu, the mysterious girl who meets a tragic end; Pipa, her husband, who never discovers whether or not Ali – a fair child with grey eyes – was his son; the love affair between Rita and Ali and their life in London after they elope from Dar. Not to mention the colonial flotsam and jetsam: the two lady missionaries, Mrs Bailey and Miss Elliott, and, in a sense, the schoolteacher himself and his colleagues. A fascinating book, offering a novel viewpoint of the influence of the “big powers” on local communities in East Africa, written with compassion and wisdom.