Review: Kintu

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu is a multi-generational saga about the descendants of Kintu: a clan elder living in what’s now Uganda in 1750 who inadvertently kills his adopted son. The boy’s birth father lays a curse on Kintu’s family, a curse whose legacy the novel traces over a century and a half. Its characters include an evangelical Christian couple, a young orphan haunted by her dead twin, an Oxford-educated intellectual and many more.

It is, in short, a big book, alert to many different flavours of the human condition under the weight of history; I want to say a generous book, because in its pages wronged souls find peace and even redemption. Its key final pages see a vast family gathering, many of them unknown to each other, to lay the curse to rest in an elaborate ritual: a scene we can read both literally and metaphorically. As the clan lays its ghosts to rest, so too do its members reestablish their family ties, settling old grievances and finding ways to move forward from their various personal crises.

This kind of duality is important in a novel which features a number of twins, who in Ganda culture are considered to have a single soul: they are two in one, or one in two, the same and different at once. One of the things Kintu is doing, I think, is holding traditional belief and modern attitudes in tension, together, two in one and one in two, so that both are true and valid at the same time; and I think it’s this refusal to collapse the possibilities of existence, this dedication to reconciliation at the level even of form, that, to me, is interesting about the novel. In an age where discourse is becoming increasingly polarised, Kintu refuses such simplicity, and the very notion that there is such a thing as one “true” story.

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