In 2013, the British Government agreed to compensate Mau Mau victims of atrocities perpetrated in colonial Kenya in the 1950s to 1960s. The case received a wave of publicity at the time and Dawood Ali McCallum’s fascinating novel brings the issues back into the spotlight, though from a different angle. It focuses on the fictional trial in Nairobi, in the early years of this century, of a British doctor for war crimes. Part courtroom drama, part political thriller, the book presents a vivid and detailed picture of Kenya in the mid-1950s, when the alleged crime is said to have taken place.
The Final Charge is essentially plot driven, full of surprising twists and with a satisfying conclusion that nonetheless raises some difficult and unanswered ethical questions. The story is told through the minds of several deftly drawn characters, linked by an overarching and omniscient narrator and punctuated by flashbacks from the doctor’s prison diary. This somewhat old fashioned literary device is nonetheless effective in that the highly visual nature of the drama means that the reader becomes a spectator, panning inwards to the hearts and minds of characters and pulling out for the wider panorama.
I particularly enjoyed the shenanigans around the British High Commission, the cheerfully corrupt business interests and the highly theatrical court scenes, replete with last minute disclosures and dubious methods of witness preparation. No one is quite what they seem and there is no space for traditional categories of good and bad.
The Final Charge of the title relates both to the indictment and to the “Charge”, a car race which provokes the setting for further plot twists and arresting descriptions of the Kenyan landscape. Racial identity is treated with delicate humour, particularly in the sparky relationship between the protagonist, a white Kenyan lawyer, and his Asian assistant, a purported war crimes expert from Britain whose birth in Kenya entitles her, against her better judgment, to be described as “African”. Yet the prevailing lightness never belies the serious undercurrents of the political struggle to create a nation state out of a colonial past.
The blurb states that McCallum has been “leading justice and human rights projects across Africa for the past 20 years”, and his experience and extensive research gives the book a ring of authenticity. The Final Charge provides insight, entertainment and a powerful desire to learn more.
Reviewer: Ros Carne, Barrister, Deputy Chief Examiner, Professional Ethics, Central Exam Board