The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – eARC Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

In some territories this book is being published under the title ‘A Girl is a Body of Water’

A powerful feminist rendition of Ugandan origin tales, The First Woman tells the story of Kirabo, the equivalent of Eve in Ugandan mythology.

Smart, headstrong, and flawed, Kirabo is raised by doting grandparents in idyllic Natteria in rural Uganda.

But as she enters her teens, she starts to feel overshadowed by the absence of the mother she has never known.

At once epic and deeply personal, it tells the story of one young girl’s search for her mother, her discovery of what it means to be a woman throughout history and the implications of her future.

My Review

The book is billed as the companion to Makumbi’s debut, Kintu which I have not read. I do not believe that it is necessary to have read Kintu to fully enjoy The First Woman.

The First Woman is an interesting, if sometimes inaccessible, read about the role of women in Ugandan society.

Stories are critical, Kirabo,’ she added thoughtfully. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Kirabo, the main character, is a young teenager in the 1970s amid the backdrop of Idi Amin’s rule, and the book follows her coming of age story through to young adulthood. Her story is told using a feminist lens, and is also much influenced by Ugandan mythology as frequently allegory is used to illustrate the power of women re their hidden depths and quiet struggles over time.

Kirabo is reared by her paternal grandparents; her father lives and works in the city and her mother is unknown to her. She seeks to know more about her mother and how to navigate this patriarchal society by getting the advice and wisdom of Nsuuta, the local witch of the community.

As the story evolves we see that there was a childhood friendship between Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother, Alikisa, but it appears that Kirabo’s grandfather Miiro came between the two women and their friendship descended into one mired in secrets and mistrust. This once close bond between the two women is echoed in Kirabo’s life with her love Sio and her childhood friend, Giibwa.

The book follows as Kirabo somehow has to find her place in the world where she can be a woman who is free to love, free to be educated, free to follow her chosen career, and also be free to be a mother if that is what she chooses.

I really enjoyed the feminist angle that this book took. It was really fascinating to see the way feminism was so subtly played in the background of the patriarch-led society of this Uganda, and how it was actually a much more prevalent idea than the book would have you first believe.

Where the book was a little difficult to follow was with the number of characters that there was to keep track of. There is a cast of key characters at the back of the book which I did frequently refer to but I discovered it a little too late due to the formatting of the ARC copy I was reading. I would very much recommend that any future readers of the novel would bookmark read page so that they can easily refer to it. However, once I had a clear idea of who was who in the novel there was much to be enjoyed from these complex relationships as they were all so delicately layered and finely balanced. This was definitely a novel laden with delicious nuance and subtlety. There was a definite rhythm to the writing style of the author that I had to get used to but once I did the pay off was well worth it.

On occasion it was a little hard to follow the structure of the narrative. At times I felt that the magical realism vibe was a touch overpowering and thusly tricky to grapple with. I also frequently got confused with the way time was handled in the book. Sometimes an event would happen, and then it felt as if the event had not yet happened for Kirabo and she would describe something that had occurred prior to that event. An example of this was when Kirabo was leaving her grandparents’ residence for the city. I thought she had said goodbye to everyone and then it seemed like she hadn’t and was describing her goodbye to Sio… I’m still in the dark as to what exactly happened with a number of instances in the novel because of this loose nature of the timeline.

However, on the whole this was a fascinating read even though it was let down on occasion by the narrative structure. But I really enjoyed the saga aspect to the novel, and very much appreciated how the author mirrored the stories of Kirabo and her grandparents; it was really smartly done. The section of the book that focused on Alikisa and Nsuuta as children and young women was very much my favourite part of the novel and really showed the meaning of true feminism underneath the shackles of tradition and patriarchy.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction who enjoy a book that you need to be an active part of as a reader.

* An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley. This review contains my honest thoughts and opinions*

Publishing 1st October 2020, Oneworld Publications

In some territories this book is being published under the title ‘A Girl is a Body of Water’

7 thoughts on “The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – eARC Book Review

    1. I LOVE THAT YOU ARE BACK! I’m currently flaky with the blog comments and hopping and all that jazz… not very well right now but I WILL GET TO YOUR BLOG SOOOOOOON! 💖💚🧡💜💛💙 also yes, this is a super compelling read but very heavy. I fell asleep reading it (not the book’s fault I’m just exhausted these days) and had a very visceral and uncomfortable dream because of this book. It just got me thinking about ways women are disrespected and violated and well… unpleasant dream puts it mildly. I nearly DNFd it because of that reaction but found something within to keep going. But definitely well worth a read if you’re in the right head space.

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  1. Very interesting review, Emer. I have read a good few African women writers recently; sometimes it’s hard to deal with so much – I was going to say misogyny – but it’s not quite that, more a cultural attitude towards women. I think, deep down, all men fear women and their power and fear breeds anger which leads to attempts at subjugation.

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    1. That is an excellent point Elizabeth. You are so right. There is definitely an inherent fear of the feminine that has been bred through patriarchal cultures…so basically all cultures!
      Have you any recommendations of African female writers? I’m a huge fan of Adichie …she’s basically my literary hero. I’ve read a number of other African writers, a mix of male and female and for the most part have very much enjoyed the storytelling. It’s very enlightening and enriching to read about cultures and ways of life that seem on the surface to be so different to ours here in Ireland, but then when you look a little deeper you see so much similarity to our past.

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