Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust 

By Habiba Malumfashi
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
The House of Rust
Image Source: @ursulakleguin/Twitter
Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s debut novel is a beautiful fairytale that grips its reader and spits on the modern remodeling of the old stories. The House of Rust is not sweet faced; it is filled with selfish heroic acts, absent neglectful fathers, lovingly constricting grandmothers, talking cats, gossiping crows and a society that cradles the fire in its young women never allowing them to burn.
Aisha is the center of the book, the plot is unremarkable in that way old stories tend to be, favored but still utterly predictable. It is Aisha’s character that gives it zing; here is a girl whose failing is not a lack of understanding of who she is, but in knowing with utter ruthlessness exactly who she wants to be. For the lover of speculative fiction, ‘House of Rust’ is a wonderful read that mixes almost all common tropes in adventure books but delivered with a grounding in realism.
The writing is swift and poignant. Khadija Bajaber has mastered the art of short and abrupt sentences that pack the punch of hundred idioms. No word is wasted and each line strings the plot along, adding a melody to simple words on paper.
For a simple coming of age tale that has had a thousand renditions, what sets The House of Rust apart? It is the beauty of its narration, the magic of its setting in Mombasa, the imagination it so easily calls up from you, the characters themselves but also the parallel to reality in a book of magical realism. The main character is understandable, relatable; the monsters in all their scorn and terrible gothic madness are relatable as well. From the crows, goats, to the sharks, Bajaber casts an ensemble of unforgettable characters with powerful dialogues. She skillfully works the problems faced by humanity into mythic parables chapter after chapter. When we meet a sea monster who might know the whereabouts of Aisha’s father, the creature is in pain at the realization that the human he calls brother loves him only at a distance, that he would refuse to betroth his precious daughter to him and broken his trust “...i was stung deeply for all that Ali called me brother he could not bear to treat me fully as one. But what could this heart do? It must bear it, it must bear it! Love is all teeth my dear” (not that one could blame Ali, his dear friend is a sea monster and his daughter a toddler who grows to become our protagonist).
Even Baba wa Papa the great sea demon, possessed a caricature of humanity’s tendency self-destructive tendencies. Khadija writes “she saw them pry apart the wound she’d made till it was a gash as ghastly and huge as the monsters jaw….she had thought them animals without consciousness, but by their viciousness and uniform intensity, Aisha wanted to think that they were avenging themselves against their king and keeper….Aisha could only watch the king of hunger be devoured by those it had enslaved and starved, by its children and its mates and kin…” Baba wa Papa, made of sharks and all that made the sea fearsome, only had a slice from the knife of a determined little girl for the tides to be turned against him.
As the first line tells us, Aisha longs for the sea and in that longing, you can feel thousands of girls who have looked to the horizon and wished for something, tangible or intangible, something more than the land holds. The longing here is for her fathers’ attention that has been ensnared by the sea, yet it can also be interpreted as the desire to escape the rigid clutches of society’s expectations. Bajaber depicted the realities of women in predominate Muslim societies rather well. From Hababa's insistence that Aisha marry, Aishas' mother, who is known as a strange and forceful personality whose greatest fault was looking beyond a married life, even the way Aishas'would be suitor sends his elders to discuss their marriage despite her never agreeing to any engagement in the first place. She artfully showed the conflict surrounding Muslim women regarding gender roles and the place religion ascribes to them and the various ways society enforces those roles.
The day Ali, Aisha’s father sailed out and did not return, Aisha’s idyllic life is shown to be not so simple. The well behaved if stubborn girl we met first is wild and vicious. The unhesitating way she took to the talking cat she had just met, the forceful shutting down of her would be suitor, even her unrelenting search for news of her father from the shark hunters spin her character into one who defies expectations. After all, what good Muslim girl will willfully disobey her elders and fall headfirst into supernatural realms with the kind of self assuredness that Aisha did.
The quest to return Aisha’s father from the sea takes the better part of the book. For a while, one might be tempted to think this was the extent of the story, the quest, the adventure on the sea with a skeleton ship and a talking cat called Hamza who spoke in riddles a la Cheshire cat. But this is only the beginning. The adventure includes sacrifices and fighting of monstrous sea beasts who have encountered the missing Ali. This section of the book, though intriguing feels too dragged. It felt too crafted to elicit sympathy and fell severely off the mark. For the lovers of poetic narration, this arc will draw you in to the fullest with its beautiful imagery, but the pragmatic reader will find most of it heavy handed and tedious to plough through.
The next arc of the epic provides the most engaging and brilliant prose in the book. We get to know Aisha more. There is nothing naïve in Aisha’s desire for freedom nor is there selflessness in her heroism. There is the selfishness and hypocrisy in the decision to cut the sea out of her father’s heart in a scene paradoxing the Islamic story of the angels cutting the ability to sin out of a young Prophet Muhammad. Beginning the new arc on this chapter makes this selfish decision seem a greater sacrifice than the countless others on her quest to save him. This arc of the story deals with many powerful emotions, the parallel between Aisha and Hababa that causes friction in their interactions, the love they have for each other, the difference between the Ali of old and the father who dotes on Aisha… These complexities set The House of Rust apart from European fairy tales. Aisha is no shy maiden to be saved and all the tension evoked in familial bonds eventually leads to an unsatisfying ending with more questions than answers. What will happen to Aisha? Will she find the house of Rust? What of Almassi? What of white Breast and the mutiny brewing in the House of Shadows, the crows? 
For a debut novel, House of Rust is startling in its imagery, its realism and wonderful characterization. One might find fault with its long-winded style and the childishness in some of its rambling tales, especially at the beginning, otherwise, it is a wonderful coming of age book for young girls who are trying to find their place and learning they are allowed ambition and dreams.