Here’s the reason why I haven’t posted a review in a while: I’ve been procrastinating on Kintu. Not because I hated the book or because it’s bad. It’s because I enjoyed the book so much and got so much out of it that I needed time to process it all.
When I decided to sit and jot down some thoughts on it, I felt overwhelmed and indecisive. I didn’t know what to say, how much to say, or where to start. But I want to stop procrastinating on it and I want to urge everyone to read it, so as best as I can, I’ll just share what comes to mind as I think back on my reading experience with this book (and hope it all makes sense).
Historical; literary; magical realism
2014 in Uganda; 2017 in the U.S.
Uganda’s history reimagined through the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan in an award-winning debut.
In 1750, Kintu Kidda unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations. In this ambitious tale of a clan and of a nation, Makumbi weaves together the stories of Kintu’s descendants as they seek to break from the burden of their shared past and reconcile the inheritance of tradition and the modern world that is their future.
Oh my gosh, Kintu.
I was going write my own summary of it but shied away from doing so. I didn’t want to give away too much. Plus, that summary I found on Goodreads does a decent job of succinctly stating what the story is about without giving anything away. To make this review easier on myself, I’ll do it a bit differently and structure it based on my reading experience with the book. Starting with…
Why I read it
Prior to seeing Kintu on the new books shelf at my library, I had never before heard of it or its author. I was drawn to the cover and the author’s name and when I flipped to the back cover to read the synopsis there, this line caught my attention: “…he unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations.”
For me, a fantasy lover, that line made me think that there will be some fantastical aspect to the story. I got excited and started to daydream that maybe the book is a Ugandan high-fantasy novel. It’s not, but that didn’t deter me. I started reading as soon as I left the library.
Just 50 pages in…
I read the introduction first, which is written by Aaron Bady, editor of the New Inquiry. I usually avoid introductions until midway through or after the story since they sometimes spoil the book or include strong opinions that influence my perception of the story. But Bady’s intro wasn’t like that. It was interesting and informed my reading by highlighting facts about the book and the author that I otherwise wouldn’t have known. Other things he discussed didn’t stand out to me at first but became more apparent as I read.
It is in the introduction that I learned that Kintu is “the mythical first man on earth and founder of the Buganda Kingdom,” which perked my interest and made me conduct a quick Google search to find out more. Bady also discusses the difficulties Makumbi faced when trying to get her novel published to a wider, international audience — she was told it was “much too African for British readers” — and shares what Makumbi tries to accomplish with the story as well as what the story is about:
“Kintu is a response to Things Fall Apart in which the story of a family curse is also a story of survivals.”
“Makumbi insists that Kintu is a ‘masculinist’ novel, and it is…it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read.”
“…Uganda is a family, and Kintu is the story of how all families are built out of silences and fictions.”
“It’s about journeying far away to find out where you are from.”
“This is Kintu: the story of how the old pasts are forgotten so that new pasts, new families, and new nations can be remembered into existence.”
The more I read Bady’s intro, the more eager I got to read the story and when I started…oh my gosh. I sunk right in.
I was immediately hooked.
I blazed through 50 pages of the story and was convinced that I needed to get my own copy. There were too many things I wanted to highlight and make note of and I couldn’t do that in a library book. I placed an order for my own copy then took a break from the story to read other books as I waited for it to arrive.
I get my own copy…
…and immediately highlighted all the things I wanted to make note of while reading the library book. I didn’t immediately jump back into the story because I was reading other books, but when I got the bulk of other books out of the way, Kintu had my full attention.
It’s easy to get swept up in this story. The prose is accessible, not too direct yet not too descriptive. It makes for fast, easy reading. However, I think it’s best to take your time reading it so as not to miss any of the clues along the way. Not that it’s a mystery, but the way it’s written — jumping back and forth in time as it focuses on characters’ ancestors in the past and characters’ descendants in the present — and how the curse manifests requires one to pay attention while reading.
I also think it’s best to read as much of it as possible in a sitting or focus on just this book when reading it. As I said before, I read many books while reading this one so I took frequent breaks from it. Because of the wealth of details and characters in this story, I got a little confused sometimes because I was reading two other books that were as detailed and contained a large cast. I realized my bad decision too late but luckily the confusion didn’t greatly affect me and soon I was focusing solely on Kintu, or at least 80% of my reading time.
Stuff I noticed as I read
Well, the first is that I agree with Bady, who says in the intro that “as with any great work of fiction, this one teaches you how to read it.”
In both Bady’s intro and elsewhere online, it’s said that this story was written for Ugandans. That became apparent to me because the story doesn’t go out of its way to explain certain things unique to Ugandans, or Africans in general, to the reader. There were a few words and phrases, always italicized, that were unfamiliar to me but a definition of them was not always provided, neither in the sentence such words or phrases appeared nor in a glossary at the back of the book (there is no glossary). Instead, readers intuit their meanings from how such words and phrases are used by the characters and the situations in which they arise. I’ll admit that I was a bit annoyed by this at first but appreciated it as I read along.
I also like that we see some of Ugandan history and tradition. The story stretches from year 1750 to 2004, so we see how Uganda changed — the people, politics, and land — over that time. I don’t know much about Uganda and only few facts about Idi Amin, who I believe I learned about from watching the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, so just about all historical facts I read in Kintu were new to me and revealed to me how very ignorant I am of world affairs and historical events in African countries.
Because of the structure of the story — how it starts (with a man being beaten to death by a mob) before jumping to the past — and how time functions in it and certain names become family names that are often reused (as if the same characters/family members are reborn again and again), I was reminded of Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, another classic (I consider Kintu a classic) I love.
Both books are similar in that they both portray the history of a country in their story, secrets that tear a family apart and bring them together, a feared curse and how that curse manifests or rather how the fear of it causes it to manifest. I also like that at the conclusion of both stories the past reaches into the present to change or affect what the future will be. It gives the reader a sense that in these stories time isn’t linear but is circular: the past influencing the present, the present reaching to the past, on and on into the future.
Final thoughts because I’m probably not making sense
Does my review here make sense? To answer my own question, I really don’t know. I just hope that I got across that this book is great, it’s worth the read, it looks thick and is 443 pages long but don’t let that turn you off. It’s a quick read, compelling, fascinating, beautiful, and at times heart-rending. I highly recommend it.
I gave it 4.5 stars before but bumped it up to 5 stars because Kintu is a great book that I hope will receive more notice. It’s my favorite book of the year so far and one I highly recommend.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
If you like historical novels, literary novels, fantasy, magical realism stories, then I recommend this novel to you.
P.S.: I totally have to reread it. I think I can do a better, more coherent review if I reread the story. On this first read, I blazed through it in excitement and wonder, paying attention to a few things but mostly just enjoying the fact that I like the story.