A Girl Is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Published by Tin House Books
Publication date: September 1, 2020
Genres: Cultural, Fiction, Historical, Literary
I came upon Jennifer Makumbi’s novel, A Girl is a Body of Water, in my efforts to further diversify my reading. It’s a multi-generational saga centered around a young Ugandan woman named Kirabo. The novel begins in the 1970s when she’s 12. She lives in a sprawling rural compound with her grandparents and many relatives. Although she is surrounded by family, her parents are not around. Her father lives and works in Kampala, the capital and comes to visit, but she has never known her mother, who is a subject not to be discussed. She is the mystery that consumes Kirabo.
Kirabo’s grandfather is wealthy and respected in the rural area where they live. A man who values education above all else, especially for girls.
Grandfather’s mantra was, “An uneducated girl is an oppressed wife in the making.”
This means her future is not to be the traditional one of early marriage and children. Instead, when she is 14 and ready for secondary school, she goes to live with her father, only to discover that he is married and has two children. His wife was not aware Kirabo would be living with them and is openly hostile to her. Despite their wealth and a home with every modern convenience, she behaves in a way that makes it impossible for Kirabo to stay there before leaving for school. It is her Aunt Abi who steps in and takes care of her before she goes.
Kirabo’s time at St. Theresa’s is some of the most satisfying reading in A Girl is a Body of Water. An all-girls school it is extremely strict personally, but academically freeing as
…a safe space for them to develop their talents without intimidation, interference, or interruption.
During these years, although Kirabo blooms intellectually, emotionally her missing mother continues to pull at her. This thread is a through line in the novel that snags her growing confidence with the feeling of abandonment. By the time she graduates, she’s on the precipice of what to do to free herself to move forward.
I’ve struggled to write this review and rate A Girl is a Body of Water. This is a dynamically told tale of one woman’s growth from child to new adult, but with two exceptions that slow the pace, jutting in front of Kirabo’s life and obscuring the story’s path. The first is at the beginning—a piece of Ugandan folklore about women. Instead of being a story within in the story, it takes over with a highly detailed narrative that has a feeling of magical realism, but is confusing. The second is in the final third of the book, when Makumbi drops Kirabo’s story and goes back over three decades to the friendship between her grandmother and another woman. It plays a part in the novel’s overall story, but is not essential. These choices may not be an issue for some readers, but they impacted how I felt about the novel overall.
That aside, the beauty of the novel is in its exploration of women’s roles in Uganda. Makumbi immerses the reader by writing in the patois of the culture. She incorporates the clashing factions of patriarchal clans against modern, urban society, peeling back the layers to show how little has really changed. Always within the context of women as they have to negotiate families and even friendships against expectations and tradition. By the time the novel ends, Kirabo is a young woman. Makumbi has nurtured her from a little girl I found to be spoiled to a fiery woman who’s come into her own. Just as vibrantly, she makes the final scene in A Girl is a Body of Water a testament to the grace, love, and endurance of all women.
If you’re interested in more fiction about modern women in African culture I’d recommend, His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
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*I received a free copy of this book from Tin House in exchange for an honest review.*