Thursday 25 November 2021

The First Woman, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Makumbi’s prize-winning novel tells us the story of Kirabo, twelve years old at the start but a young woman by the end. Brought up in a rural Ugandan village by her grandparents, her father is a fleeting presence, having made a life for himself in Kampala. Her mother is notable by her absence, one keenly felt by Kirabo. As the book progresses we see Kirabo grow and mature, becoming more aware of the political turmoil that has provided the backdrop to her formative years.

The story is not told in first person narrative yet it feels as though it is Kirabo telling it to us. This means that in her younger years things she doesn’t understand are glossed over. Figures such as the dictator Idi Amin have the potential to dominate attention, but he remains at the periphery, becoming clearer as she ages, and offering us a glimpse of life as a teenager during such a tumultuous and dangerous period. 

Feminism and the role of women is a central theme in the novel. Kirabo herself ‘ignored it because as far as she knew, feminism was for women in developed countries with first-world problems.’ Makumbi instead chooses to focus on mwenkanonkano, highlighting the different forms of feminism that exist, that different circumstances lead to different approaches. The women in the novel are strong and influential in Kirabo’s life. We learn also of the Ugandan creation myth of the first woman, Nnambi, and Kirabo is taught by Nsuuta how these myths tie in with modern misconceptions and fears around women.

Attitudes to sexuality are also explored. Kirabo is taught that menstruating is dirty and it is referred to as her ‘ruins’. A refreshing alternative view is offered by her Aunt Abi who provides a more liberal outlook, encouraging her to get to know her body and sexuality before sharing it with a boy.

Kirabo is eventually sent to an all-girls school where they attempt to remove all male influence. She sees that it’s already too late however, noting that they have already learnt that their worth is linked to their usefulness to men. She is observant and questioning, seeing girls removed from school pregnant and pondering the fact that the lives of the boys who got them pregnant continue unchanged.

At the heart of the novel are notions of family and the women Kirabo turns to for advice. She is horrified when she discovers her father’s other family and his wife’s reaction to this unknown step-daughter turning up at her home. Kirabo’s desire to find her mother preoccupies her mind, and when she finds out who she is she acts recklessly, hurt by the stinging rejection. Despite this absence, she is loved and supported, sometimes slightly spoilt. We see as she comes in to her maturity the shift towards being able to see situations from the perspectives of others and to truly appreciate those who raised her.

This is an interesting read with a lot to sink your teeth in to. Kirabo is a believable, likeable character with relatable flaws. It offers us an insight into growing up with huge political upheaval and violence happening all around with the contrasting personal struggles and pains of approaching womanhood. 

Pick up a copy:




Thursday 18 November 2021

Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience

As the sun sets over Arley Hall in Chesire, its woodlands come alive with the sound of werewolves, owls, and mischievous pixies. Until 3rd January 2022, budding wizards and wise witches have the chance to come face to face with some of their favourite creatures from the Harry Potter universe. From entering through an arch of floating lamps, wandering through an illuminated forest, and the final showpiece, this is an incredibly well-thought out experience that will delight visitors of all ages.

Unlike many ‘creature’ experiences where animatronics are set along the route, this requires a little more attention. Yes, there are animatronics and plenty to see directly off the course, but stop and look a little deeper and you’ll see the glint of eyes, the rustle of leaves, and even the odd unicorn if you’re really lucky. This adds a sense of adventure to the evening, and the capacity means it never feels overly full, you can take your time exploring without constantly feeling rushed or overcrowded. The atmosphere is enhanced with audio clips from the films, music, and sound effects that help to bring the forest to life. 

You can spend as much or as little time as you want enjoying the experience - we took around two hours to walk the route, although you could do it faster if you didn’t want to stop and take photos every few steps. There are a few interactive sections dotted throughout that give you the chance to find out what your patronus would be, and see how successful you’d be in a wizard duel. Naturally, there’s also plenty of food and drink options, with bottled butterbeer available and soft drinks in your house colours. 

At the end of the route you’ll find yourself in a magical village where you can refuel, roast giant marshmallows over an open fire, and warm up with a cup or two of mulled wine before heading into the Magical Emporium to snag some magical souvenirs of your night. 

Friday 12 November 2021

Non-Fiction November Week Two - Book Pairings

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I’m late to the Non-Fiction November party this year, but when I saw the week two theme (provided by Katie of Doing Dewey) I couldn’t help but join in. 

The first two books of Gabaldon’s best selling series centre around the time leading up to the infamous Battle of Culloden. For a look at the expansive history of the Jacobites which includes, but is no means limited to, the activity around Bonnie Prince Charlie, Seward’s book offers an overview of almost 120 years of the Jacobite movement.

Dark Emu
by Bruce Pascoe, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss and The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Grenville’s novel explores the relationship and violence between colonists in Australia and the Aboriginal people who have looked after and lived in the land for thousands of years. Dark Emu challenges the impression of Aboriginal people as hunter gatherers and shows how white history has retold their history to suit their own prejudices. Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia gives us a glimpse of life in modern Australia that reveals the ongoing impact of colonialism.

Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufman and A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison

Morrison’s book centres on a strong, intelligent, black woman in Tudor England. Enslaved, but later saved from slavery, she overcomes a number of challenges to succeed in a time where the colour of her skin and her gender would have led many to underestimate her. Kaufman’s book seeks to raise the voices of those who are often erased from the history of the Tudors, and reassesses the view that slavery was almost inevitable, urging us to think again about what caused a radical shift in perspective in the seventeenth century.

The Shadowy Third
by Julia Parry
and The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Parry’s enthralling book traces her grandfather’s affair with the writer Elizabeth Bowen through their correspondence, bringing her grandmother to the fore, who had destroyed her own letters from the time. This is a fascinating book that makes you think about how history is constructed. Reading it will definitely make you want to explore some of Bowen’s writing and The House in Paris is the novel cited as being central to the family’s myth around Bowen, so makes a good place to start.

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by

Sarah Wise and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ speaks powerfully to us through the years, inspiring creative responses and intriguing the casual reader. Wise’s book gives a startling insight into the way those considered mad were treated in Victorian England, as well as those who weren’t but were conveniently diagnosed as such to keep them out the way.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Born of No Woman, Franck Bouysse, translated by Lara Vergnaud

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Trigger warning: This novel contains scenes of sexual and emotional abuse, and includes descriptions of violent deaths.

Bouysse’s searing novel brings nineteenth century France to life in chilling detail. The narrative voice shifts throughout, but it is Gabriel, the village priest, who bookends the novel. It opens with a mysterious confession requesting he remove a series of diaries from the body of a woman at the asylum, the contents of the which will haunt him for the rest of his days. It soon becomes clear why, as a bitter tale of abuse, intrigue, and deception unfolds.

Fourteen year old Rose is sold to a blacksmith by her father, desperately trying to save the family farm. The castle in which the blacksmith lives with his mother is cold and unwelcoming, reflecting the souls of its inhabitants. Rose quickly realises that no matter how well she performs her tasks the old woman will always find something to complain about. She accepts her new position with quiet resolve, but the true evil of her owners will soon reveal itself, making her life unbearable. There is some slight relief in the presence of Edmond, a kindly employee who warns her off staying, but without giving full reason why. Her affection for him is soon tainted with the disappointment that he didn’t do more to protect her.

There is one more inhabitant - the wife of the blacksmith, confined to her bedroom due to ill health, and never seen outside it. The doctor visits regularly, and Rose becomes curious about what’s wrong with her. The wife locked away is not an uncommon presence in either nineteenth century novels or modern books set during the period. The visits by the doctor will make those familiar with such novels as The Crimson Petal and the White distinctly uncomfortable, but the truth, when it is revealed, is far darker than anything I had imagined. 

The various threads of the story are constructed to devastating effect. At times we see the same events through different eyes with heartbreaking results. Rose, having been sold without her knowledge or consent, can only imagine the thought process of her family, completely blind to the consequences caused by the foolish actions of a desperate man. At many moments you wish the truth could be communicated between the unhappy inhabitants, but the despicable villains ensure this is never possible.

The blacksmith and his mother are truly abhorrent, their cruelty seemingly knowing no bounds. Often incredibly difficult to read, the sections revealing their unforgivable actions will have you boiling with anger. They are carefully realised villains that inspire no sympathy. They manipulate and abuse, and the image of Rose trapped with them in a forbidding castle where no-one will hear her screams is truly bone chilling.

The writing is confident and lyrical, creating a vivid, believable world that will take hold of your heart and not let go. The clever little details littered throughout drop hints of the full picture, which will only become clear after a series of twists and revelations that subvert many assumptions made from the off. Bouysse successfully draws you in to a dark and dangerous world with characters that will inspire strong emotions. At many times a difficult read, it is nonetheless almost impossible to put down.