A Black lady's hand holding a copy of The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

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About the Book

Title: The House of Rust

Author: Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Magical Realism, Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Publication Date: October 2021

Pages: 272, Paperback


I definitely think Khadija did The House of Rust a lot of justice, considering the many stories we’ve grown up hearing about Mombasa. I am sure there have been fear-inducing stories about the Jinnis of Mombasa. From cats that speak to beautiful women who seduce you only to lead you back to the ocean as a sacrifice. Honestly, I can’t remember a time in my childhood I wasn’t terrified of Mombasa in my childhood. 


But The House of Rust wasn’t so much of that fear-inducing view of a different world we hear from childhood stories. A world where there are talking cats and monster sea animals. It is a fantasy and magical realism fiction set in the heart of Mombasa. It’s a whole different magical realism woven with hints of what we’re used to but in a whole new and fascinating type of way. 


It’s the best fantasy fiction from Kenya I have read.  


Get Your Copy of The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber


The House of Rust on the table with a side pate with cup cakes and cup of hot chocolate


My Thoughts About The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

I will be honest; the beginning of the book was really so slow for me I had to shelve it for a few months. I just couldn’t get into it as I’d hoped. It took me a while to get into the story itself. 


But once I did, my, oh, my! I got lost in the story. Khadija has the style of writing, a descriptive story-telling style that reminded me of Amor’s A Gentleman In Moscow. I really do enjoy and love such books. The imagery of the protagonist’s escapades is so vivid and enticing. 


The book is centred around a young girl, Aisha. She sees herself as an outcast and considers herself quite different from the other young ladies in her community. Perhaps, rightfully so. Her mother died when she was so young, and was left under the care of her wayward father and her grandmother. Her father is a fisherman who is not afraid of the ocean. As such, he explores the Indian Ocean to the most dangerous parts that other renowned fishermen in the area cannot even dare. 


Until one day, he is lost at sea. As the days go by, Aisha’s grandmother is ready to conduct a burial without her son’s body. Nobody survives the dark trenches of the ocean after getting lost for a couple of days. The community has already started mourning because, to them, he’s already dead. 


Not Aisha, though. Deep down, she believes her father is still alive and lost somewhere in the ocean. So she embarks on a rescue mission with a talking cat on a dingy boat made of skeletons. Yeah, skeletons! And that’s not even half of it. She battles talking sea monsters that demand sacrifice. It’s her way of buying passage from one part of the ocean to the other. Each part of the ocean is ruled by different monsters. Each more ruthless than the previous. There are talking snakes and goats and crows. However, only Aisha can understand them. Yeah, she really was right about being the oddball. 


Aisha is such a headstrong, motivated, and eccentric protagonist. And at such a young age! She’s the strong-willed child I wish I would be. I am also in awe of the growth of her character. From a scared young lady who’s venturing into the unknown in the dark ocean to an adventurous and thrill-seeking individual who cannot wait to face the sea on her own. Generally, every character in the book has an incredible growth arc, including Aisha’s father, grandmother and the old man that helped her during her rescue search, Mzee Zubeir. 


Get Your Copy of The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber


Away from the magical realism, there are several themes that we can all associate with at one point or another. The most identifiable ones being marriage, with the views differing between the young and the old and each believing to be right through and through. For Aishas’s grandmother, whom she refers to by the traditional name Hababa, it’s the hope that Aisha reforms into a ‘respectable woman’ so she can find a young and reputable man to marry and take care of her. Aisha, on the other hand, cannot even meet the eyes of the elders, especially men. She also abhors the idea of marriage.


And a theme on the sense of belonging based on one’s tribe. On belonging, it’s quite common in many cultures for a child to be deemed of their father’s bloodline. In some cultures, like Arabs, it defines a lot in your life if your family is very traditional. If your bloodline isn’t pure Arab, you’re bound to experience some sort of discrimination. And so, Aisha questions this. Because her mother’s bloodline isn’t well known, making her face a lot of discrimination when she was alive. 


“Mombasa blood, the Uswahili that Hababa claimed wasn’t really Swahili, because wasn’t her father an Arab? Her father’s father was an Arab, all the fathers before, Arabs. But who, Aisha had often wondered, was Shida’s father? And what of all the non-Arab mothers in that long line of so-called Arab fathers whose names no one clutched to remember, because it was better to be who your father was, to be Arab? The Swahili was in Aisha’s blood, in her mouth, on her face. Not something that could be denied or waved away.”


I could also not help but fall in love with some of the love and intimate vulnerabilities of the characters. The book is not really a romance novel, but the little we see of the love arc between two characters is nothing short of swoon-worthy moments. This is from two headstrong characters. Elderly characters. Characters that find their way back to each other at an age where it seems impossible to find love. Indeed, you can always find love at any stage in life. 


“I love you, Swafiywa. I’ve loved you since you were ten, blossoming around the young ones and catching beetles. I loved you when you loved your husband—in Old Town, in Kibokoni, on land, in the sea. I loved you with your long hair, and then with your short hair. I loved you when you covered it. I loved you, strong even before you had to grow up. I loved you, cussing out the children and turning sunflower seeds over. I loved you when you were within my sight, and I loved you when you left it. I loved you in the war, when everything was on fire, when everyone was dying. I loved you after you refused to have me. I loved you when your words put strength in me. I loved you when you weakened me. I loved you with your belly swollen with the son you loved. I loved you when you lied to me. I loved you when I ran from you. And I love you now, too. Swafiya, you are my entire heart.” ~ The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber


The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber novel and Snacks, cupcakes, mandazi and chapati with a cup of cake and serviettes on a table

Let’s take a tea break first….


While the book is dense, the prose is one to die for. Not forgetting the many quotes I could not help but fall in love with. 


 Let me quote a few;


– “Are you alive if you do not question the world? If you do not go to war with yourself in deciding how to acquaint yourself with it or challenge it? At the end of all worlds, will you show how neat your miserly book of sums? Or will you have had the courage and say I did deeds good and bad, I disagreed with the world around me, I was awake and I believed and I doubted, but I was not immobilized. I was alive, to the best of my abilities, I was alive.” ~ The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber  


– “We keep closest to ourselves that which is most dear. Deep in your heart—beneath the sea, beneath the lantern-eyed, many-toothed things, beneath the flying feathered fish and the many-eyed serpents, beneath the sunken boats and beneath even the bed of that ocean—there is another heart, and in that other heart, there is another name everyone has that other heart, a buried thing that cannot be killed, for to strike at it would be to rupture a wound beyond all wounds.” ~ The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber


– “Love . . . is like courage. It can make you leap to your feet or stay your sword, it can make you a fool, but it does not paralyse. If it is only cutting you and cutting you, then it isn’t love, it’s just something you call love so you can pretend a wound is beautiful. Love is not an eternal prison, is not a wound, is not a poison. It is an exchange, it is always returning. It nurtures and binds.” ~ The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber


Seriously, how can you not fall in love with such? 


Yeah, I definitely recommend The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber! 


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My ★ Rating 4.5

Goodreads ★ Rating 3.6 (as of June 2023)

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