Okwiri Oduor, Things They Lost, Oneworld Publications, 2022.
Things They Lost is a mesmerising magical realism tale about mothers and daughters, with a fascinating and rich world, and a very endearing main character.
Ayosa is 12 and lives alone in her family home. From time to time, her mother comes back to her. She promises to stay with her daughter, but always she leaves again. In the meantime, Ayosa eats well thanks to Jentrix the apothecary, her neighbour, tries to escape wraiths who try to snatch her, listens to Mrs Temperance, the poet, on the radio, and befriends Mbiu, another lonely girl. The problem is, Ayosa remembers everything, even things from before she was born, things her mother tried to forget.
CW: death of a child, child neglect, child abuse (implied, not on page).
Ayosa, the main character, is an absolute delight and one of the reason I've loved the novel so much. She's a very endearing girl, at this age when you start to question the world and the adults around you. She often asks "Because why?" and this leitmotiv is also a wonderful way to define the novel. Things are this way, but why? What caused them to be this way? Through her memories, Ayosa delves into the past of her mother, Nabumbo Promise, of her grandmother, Lola Freedom, and of her great-grandmother, Mabel Brown. It's a family tragedy, entirely played between mothers and daughters, each generation repeating the mistakes in a cycle that seems endless. But because Ayosa can remember so much, maybe she can step away, maybe she can say stop, even if doing so is harrowing. Her mother, Nabumbo Promise, lost her sister, but maybe she, Ayosa, can find a sister, one who will love her, not with the broken love her mother can barely offer.
Because Nabumbo Promise is broken. It's difficult not to empathise with her, despite all her faults. Her seizures bring Nabumbo Promise to another world where she lives years, and through this we can see how she tries to escape her own life but never succeeds. Her own name recalls harshly the promise to never leave she tells again and again to her daughter, only to break that promise again and again.
It'd be a mistake to think that Things They Lost is a sad novel because of those two characters. First, because Ayosa herself is quite fun. Also because there are many characters who bring some light relief. Mbiu, the other lost girl with a harrowing story of her own and yet filled with joy and hope; Sindano, the café owner who crosses herself in relief every time she hears the cow bell ringing because the cow is dead. The gallery of secondary characters is a delight.
The novel main focus is on mothers-daughters relationships, but it also offers a sharp satire of village life, with the holier-than-thou and gossiping villagers. It touches on colonialism with Ayosa's great-grandmother, Mabel Brown, a violent white woman. Finally, Ayosa's fascination for Mrs Temperance's poems reminds of the power of poetry to put words on feelings we cannot express.
The worldbuilding is an extremely strong aspect of Things They Lost. It's filled with fascinating creatures and characters like the jolly annas, never properly explained and whose ha-ha-ha punctuate the novel; the wraiths who crave for what Ayosa has and they lack; the Fatumas, the spirits living in Ayosa's attic; the Sister-Maker... Oduor has written a novel that teems with life. And everything brings back endlessly to the question: is it better to be alone than to be loved by someone who actually doesn't know how to love you? And maybe, just maybe, there's a corollary to this question: is it better to leave them behind and be loved by someone else instead?
In the end, what did they lose? Memories and love, and both are inextricably linked.
The story takes its time, meandering through the past, poems, and Ayosa's mundane life. But because the prose is quite simply outstanding, you get carried away. Oduor's words take you on a journey which isn't only to the broken hearts of her characters, but also to a world full of surprises she unpacks slowly, one at a time, with elegance and ease.
Things They Lost is a wonderful novel that people who love literary SFF and magical realism must read. The harshness and harrowing moments are amazingly balanced with humour, endearing characters and an amazing world. Without a doubt, Oduor is a new-to-me novelist I'll now follow keenly.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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