Sunday, 11 October 2020

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi


The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Published in the UK by Oneworld Publications on the 13th August 2020. Published in the USA as A Girl is A Body of Water by Tin House Books on the 1st September 2020.

A More Than One Challenge read

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


For one young girl, discovering what it means to become a woman in a family, a community and a country determined to silence her will take all the courage she has.

Growing up in a small Ugandan village, Kirabo is surrounded by powerful women. Her grandmother, her aunts, her friends and cousins are all desperate for her to conform, but Kirabo is inquisitive, headstrong and determined. Up until now, she has been perfectly content with her life at the heart of this prosperous extended family, but as she enters her teenage years, she begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. The First Woman follows Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her place in the world, as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin.

Jennifer Makumbi has written a sweeping tale of longing and rebellion, at once epic and deeply personal, steeped in an intoxicating mix of ancient Ugandan folklore and modern feminism, that will linger in the memory long after the final page.

I enjoyed reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's short story collection, Manchester Happened, in May last year so leapt at the chance to read an review this new novel of hers, The First Woman, when it appeared on NetGalley. (In America, the same book has been published as A Girl Is A Body Of Water and I do prefer that more enigmatic title.) Set in Idi Amin's Uganda, The First Woman is a strong coming of age story which explores not only Kirabo's personal experiences as she grows up, but also the effects of Ugandan creation myths and the historic role of women within the culture. My favourite aspects of the story were conversations between young Kirabo and her elderly neighbour, Nsuutu, who teaches Kirabo to see why their traditional way of life came to be. I loved the synchronicity of having recently read similar ideas from a Christian perspective in Susan Scott's In Praise of Lilith. Kirabo has to balance religious and cultural expectations against her own desires. Makumbi's nuanced portrayal of her confusion made it easy for me to empathise, especially as Kirabo observes the most ardent supporters of a repressively patriarchal lifestyle are actually other women - not men.

I am glad to have read The First Woman and there were plenty of philosophical concepts that I spent time mulling over both while reading the book and in the days since I have finished. I did think that the book was rather too long for its story because I sometimes found my concentration wandering. Also I struggled to differentiate between everybody in the large cast of characters, particularly those with similar names. That said though, I loved the historical side. Makumbi's way of depicting the era though the way in which characters dress, or comments they make about food shortages, is very effective. I liked Kirabo. She is someone I was happy to spend time with and the similarities between her life's trajectory and that of her grandmother provided The First Woman with a satisfying narrative structure.


Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi / Coming of age novels / Books from Uganda

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