A 12-year-old girl in rural Kenya has the power to see into her country’s painful past in this compelling, beautifully written novel
It’s the 1980s and 12-year-old Ayosa Ataraxis Brown lives in the fictional town of Mapeli, in the hills and forests of Kenya’s Rift valley. She declares herself “the loneliest girl in the world”, with only a transistor radio and the daily broadcasts of a poet named Ms Temperance to link her with the wider world. Her metaphysical companions are the Fatumas who haunt her house, “creatures of the attic, half girl and half reverie”, pulled from the Indian Ocean by a fisherman 400 years ago.
When her mother could not deal with the young Ayosa, she would leave her to the Fatumas, to soothe her crying and sing her to sleep. Although the house shakes with their grievous wailing when death notices are broadcast on the radio, no one else can see them; they “let all their parts slacken”, melting their human forms into the “jagged spokes” and “sticky, bitter gel” of an aloe plant in a seagrass pannier to conceal themselves from outsiders’ eyes.
Oduor skilfully balances whimsy with satirical, devastating realism, a trait she nails as particularly Kenyan
Unlike the wraiths who try to lure Ayosa away from her home, the Fatumas seem to safeguard the vulnerable, courageous woman Ayosa is growing into. And yet they are trapped in the attic, just as Ayosa is trapped in her childhood dependence on her mother, on the verge of awakening a more powerful part of herself and dreaming of being free.
The irony of Ayosa’s middle name is the key to Caine prize winner Okwiri Oduor’s magical, beguiling debut novel. Things They Lost tells the tales of four generations of formidable women, who have lives “nestled inside each other like Babushka dolls” – it was Lola Freedom, Ayosa’s flying-doctor grandmother, whose actions trapped them all in a cycle of violence. Ataraxis means serenity, but Ayosa’s peace is shaken by a tornado of emotions and hideous memories. Her mother’s middle name is Promise, but her promises are regularly broken.
Torn between desires for independence and attention from a mother who “came and went like Blackjack needles blowing where the breeze decided”, Ayosa seeks the serenity she needs in nature: aphids, katydids, lacewings, nectar dripping from “the orange tubes of lion’s ear flowers”. The narrative voice is highly attuned to the sensuous shapes and textures of the natural riches surrounding Ayosa’s childhood home.
Nabumbo Promise Brown is described by her daughter as loving “fiercely … She laughed effusively, but then, somewhere in the shade of herself, icicles tapered from above, waiting to decapitate you.” Their home is inherited from Ayosa’s great-grandmother, the eccentric English widow Mabel Eudoxia Brown, who wielded a musket that “she fired at the backs of fleeing children”. Like the house at the centre of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the “Manor Mabel Brown” is a colonial artefact, “lurid and vulgar”, populated by “weary shadows”. At the heart of the novel is the magnetic power of “want” – that life force that makes Ayosa’s “toes curl”, whether she’s thinking of the restless river, the clamorous insects and ravenous jackals, or the possibility of having a friend such as Mbui Dash, “a throwaway girl”, who might make her feel wanted – feel like a real sister, mother or daughter.
Ayosa has powers beyond mere daydreaming. She is able to access “the Yonder Days”, memories from her mother’s and grandmother’s past, a time when she was just a wiggling thing, without corporeal form, before her mother called her into being. This seer-like gift means Ayosa can also be summoned into “Jinamezi”, the Kiswahili word for nightmare, forcing her to see unbearable things and revisit painful memories. These are the titular “things they lost” – often examples of silences kept since the “disappearances” of the 1978-2002 Moi era, when the government was responsible for numerous human rights violations, including massacres, unlawful detentions, rape and torture.
Delineating a matrilineal rather than patrilineal history, Ayosa gathers her most important thoughts into a notebook that balances the sins and duties of Catholicism with the wildness, pleasure and creativity of the Earth Mother. When questioned about what she is writing, Ayosa replies simply, “what it’s like for a girl like me”.
Things They Lost carries echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, while Oduor shares Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s gift for illustrating the complexity of rural inland and coastal Kenyan reality, with its intricacy of connections to Uganda, Tanzania and the Swahili coast. Her ability to tap into a depth and range of feeling, while accessing unexpected humour, is uncanny.
Throughout the novel, Oduor skilfully balances whimsy with satirical, devastating realism, a trait she nails as particularly Kenyan. “If anything that was the problem with Kenyans. They did not know how to hold back with the truth. They brutalised you with the truth.” The result is a surreal novel that is beautifully written, compelling, ominous and mysterious, with a strong, young, female Kenyan voice at the centre.
• Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.