This is a big, ambitious book, relating the story of an extended family that begins with a patriarch in 1750 and then jumps ahead to 2004, tracing the fortunes of his descendants in modern Uganda. It’s been much discussed as a very Ugandan book, written for local readers and enjoying massive popularity there, but it’s an excellent novel with much to offer international readers as well.
The story begins in the old kingdom of Buganda, where Kintu Kiddu, a governor, journeys to the capital to pay his respects to a new king, who just took power by murdering his brother. Kintu’s most pressing concerns, however, are closer to home, with the large number of wives he’s obliged to marry for political purposes, the grooming of his heir, and the adopted son whose father curses Kintu’s family.
By 2004, Kintu’s descendants are scattered. Suubi, abandoned as a child, has found material stability but is haunted by her dead twin; estranged from her adoptive family, she tentatively searches for her relatives at the urging of her boyfriend. Kanani is an old man who, along with his fanatical wife, has found refuge in an evangelical Anglican sect, but their zealotry has driven away their children and the family keeps a shameful secret. Isaac has overcome childhood neglect and survived war to be economically successful, but he believes he has given HIV to his wife and child and is afraid to confirm it. Miisi is foreign-educated but chooses to live in a village, where he is raising a small tribe of grandchildren after the deaths of his children.
Plot summaries about this book tend to focus on the ancient curse, but as someone who usually finds fictional curses to be boring plot drags, I was impressed with Makumbi’s handling of this element. The Kintu clan believes that they are cursed, but the story leaves room for other interpretations. The characters experience a lot of hardship, but in the modern story it never feels inevitable, as in those books where you know every hope will end in tragedy. When the clan ultimately comes together in an attempt to remove the curse,
the outcome is ambiguous; but what’s clear is that they have connected with one another, forming a support network to buoy relatives who are isolated or in crisis. Perhaps their isolation from one another was the problem all along, and the ceremonial aspects are simply a way to bring people together and give them a common goal.
But having more than one possible reading is a sign of good literature.
And this is a really good book. It’s engaging and moves quickly, with short chapters and lot of dialogue, and a few secrets for readers to guess. The characters are believable and complex, even those who only appear for short periods of time, and this is quite a feat given that there are a lot of them. The writing is good and there is a strong sense of place, though this is a book much more focused on people than descriptions; the culture comes out in the way people speak and what they think and worry about. When people talk about this book being “too African” for British readers (Makumbi evidently couldn’t get a publisher there), I suspect it’s not really about the book’s lack of white characters or focus on colonialism and its aftermath. All that has been done before, though this book remains notable for the lack of European presence in such an expansive historical epic; there’s a lot more to Uganda’s history than its decades of British rule, and we see that in context here.
No, I think the British publishers just took issue with the book’s being aimed at Ugandan readers: the language, the names, the culture aren’t simplified, but form the foundations of the book’s complex world. I doubt international readers will actually have trouble understanding it. No matter where you’re from, it’s an engaging story with a lot of humanity that anyone will recognize, and books tend to be better when they don’t make patronizing assumptions about their audiences.
Aside from being a good story, this book has a lot to say. In the introduction (which I recommend actually reading – it’s spoiler-free and provides interesting background and context), Makumbi describes the book as “masculinist,” for its look at how patriarchy hurts men. The book doesn’t explicitly discuss gender roles, but it’s there, from Kintu’s struggles to sexually gratify the many young wives politics require him to marry when he only wants one, to Isaac’s issues with female sexuality, which lead him to marry a woman who can recognize his issues and use them to manipulate him. When asked if this isn’t feminism, Makumbi replied that her next book is the feminist one – which has me excited for that book. But I can see where she’s coming from: this book is more focused on the men, though the women are complex and varied.
Finally, it’s a fascinating look at the combination of tradition and modernity. There are a lot of traditional Ganda beliefs in the novel, but it doesn’t idealize the past or portray it as monolithic. (One of the funniest scenes involves a traditional all-night advice session for Kintu’s son on the eve of his marriage; the men give him a lot of contradictory advice about sex and marriage.) In the present, the clan varies in their adherence to tradition, from Kanani, who wants to do away with it, to his sister Bweeza, whose persistence and enthusiasm for the old ways make her the “Great Aunt” of the clan. Modernity creeps into traditional ceremonies, where the hired medium is foreign-educated, while old ways and traditional motifs reassert themselves in modern contexts.
Overall then, this is an excellent novel, combining storytelling prowess with big ideas and food for thought. I hope its unfamiliarity won’t scare readers off; one of the great advantages of reading is the ability to experience other lives and cultures, and this is a perfect book for the armchair traveler. And it has an engaging plot, complex characters and universal themes to interest those with no connection to Uganda. I hope it is widely read and that we get more books like this.