Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
En route to the capital to pay homage to the new king, Kintu Kidda accidentally kills his adopted son. Returning home several weeks later, having buried the body on the journey as best he could, he fails to announce the death in the traditional way. When the boy’s natural father discovers what happened, he curses Kintu and his bloodline with mental illness, sudden death and suicide – and perhaps also parental neglect. Several generations later, Suubi Nnakintu, ignorant of her family due to having been abandoned at the age of five, is haunted by her dead twin sister. In the same city, and unknown to her, another descendant has been murdered by the mob after being branded a thief. She is also unaware of her relatives, Faisi and Kanani Kintu, both unfortunately too busy sowing the seed of the Anglican gospel to pay much attention to their own twins. Also neglected by his mother, Isaac Newton Kintu neither speaks nor walks until the age of seven yet manages to fund his education to degree level through working as a DJ. But the reader meets him initially in unhappy circumstances: at the funeral of his young wife after her death apparently from HIV/AIDS. Miisi Kintu has seen the deaths of ten of his twelve children. He also experiences vivid dreams but, as a highly educated and rational man who has lived abroad, he’s dismissive of their possible meaning, and of the family curse. His analogy of Frankenstein-like surgery for European colonisation and subsequent denigration of Africa should be required reading for everyone in the West.
The family reunion section didn’t work as well for me as the individual stories, although it gets to the heart of the myth via a medium-led reburial of the ancestors to lift the curse. Published by Oneworld, who provided my review copy, Kintu is a multilayered epic that will keep you turning the page. For a very different, but equally engrossing, story about twins, see my review of Mischling.
The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee
At first, this seems a beautifully written but relatively straightforward account of living with a disturbing but not particularly serious health condition. Bell’s Palsy has no known cause or cure but, being quite disfiguring, can impact on relationships with oneself and others. Mr A having experienced this a few years ago in perhaps a milder form than James, I was ready to sympathise but, consistent with the author’s intention, I wondered what else might be distorted in James’ otherwise idyllic life. He tells us early on that he and his wife are sleeping separately and, although he later offers an explanation, I wasn’t altogether convinced.
As his affliction continues, the novel gets creepier as James becomes progressively more alienated from his family, his neighbours and his work identity. Is this because people are reacting negatively to his altered appearance or James’s self-perception as all-round model citizen is fundamentally flawed? Rich in symbolism, Tom Lee’s debut novella can be read as a parable about the cracks in utopian communities and/or a retelling of the classic Jekyll and Hyde. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.
If you enjoy novels with a male narrator who is potentially more disturbing than he likes to think, you might be interested in my second novel, Underneath.
Can I link these novels to 99-word story about boots? The modern Ugandans don’t walk far; while their ancestors went barefoot. James visits the woods daily but an hour’s long walk for him and for that he doesn’t need boots. As for a booty affliction, I can think of only good things: my sturdy walking boots and where they take me; the bright blue boots I’ve learnt to love now I know not to subject them to long wet grass. Alas, I do have a real-life, although a challenge to squeeze into so few words:
Bliss: after ten hours, to loosen my laces, peel off my socks, expose my feet to the air. The gravel’s sharp, so I slip on flip-flops and pit-pat to the driver’s door. Ouch! Pain shoots across the sole whenever I flex my foot. Afterwards, a tingling that never disappears. Will I have to cancel my long-distance walk?
Plantar fasciitis, says the physio. Prescribes ice, massage, gel insoles: I’m happy again. But three days in, my heels are throbbing. Blisters, moi? With the insoles my broken-in boots don’t fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper anymore. Shucks, only 160 miles to go!