I like books with houses and fictional cities with a close sense of community. In The things they lost By Okwiri Oduor, The Old Manor Mabel Brown has aged how to a house that rises high above the fictional Kenyan town of Mapeli. Picture a crumbling “dreary and vulgar” mansion—creaking gates, stone angels, yards overgrown with “tangled clumps of thorns and wild flowers and barbed wire and stiff yellow grass” and obstinate, merry eyes that squeal ha-ha-ha. The estate belonged to matriarchal settler Mabel Brown, wife/widow of a missionary, and is now home to her granddaughter, twelve-year-old Ayosa Atarxis Brown, the loneliest girl in the world. And this novel is the story of the things she lost; things that the people of Mapeli town lost, big (mothers, love, memory, children) and small (poncho, red ribbon for braiding hair, dentures, Casio watch, biro pen cap).
This rich, delicious and dark family saga of four generations of women centers on the mother-daughter relationship between Nabumbo Promise and Ayosa – unstable, violent and lacking in love and attention. Mama Nabumbo often “stumbled into herself” and became angry. Ayosa calls these episodes “red city”. It could happen at any time -“She (Nabumbo Promise) would be riding across the open ground on a mission when a rift opened inside her and she fell to the ground.”, or between lunches. Mama Nabumbo was often ‘missing’, not just in the spiritual sense. She was a photojournalist and began running errands, leaving Ajos alone for months with the company of the Fatumas, the ghost sisters who live in the manor’s attic. Ayosa spent her days reading, writing, listening to the radio, learning from the local apothecary, talking to the owner of an empty cafe, and living on the mercy of the townspeople while waiting for her mother to return. When Mama Nabumbo returned, she loved “strongly, but only for a short time, and then the effort wore her down and she forgot to love at all.”
Ayosa takes inventory of the scars on her mother’s body; She spends a lot of time watching her mother when she is back home, sometimes wondering if it is her mother’s appearance. Ayosa loves her mother unconditionally; they are best friends, laugh, even talk about sisters. But Nabumbo’s Promise was broken, “all the debris inside,” which made him mean, neglectful, and absent. To stave off these visceral cruel moments, Ayosa poured bleach into mom’s laundry or put grass snakes in mom’s bed or called a radio station to say Nabumbo Promise Brown was a devil bitch.
Another lonely girl, Mbiu Dasha, enters this life and saves Ajosa’s life. They become fast friends, bonded together by each other’s company and the wonder of the world outside Brown Manor. Here is a conversation between Ayosa and the other girl, which is one of the sweetest passages about loneliness. Coincidentally, it was this paragraph that sent me running to read the novel when author Gautam Bhatia shared it on Twitter.
After a while, the girl at the window turned to go.
where are you going
To watch people.
Because why do you look at people?
Because to see their loneliness. Some people wear theirs like a fine coat. Others poke at it and turn up their noses like a bag of mealworms. One lady invites her lonesome to lunch every Tuesday. She sets out her best china and seats her lonesome at the table and serves pork ribs. I think that’s really smart of her. If you wine and dine your loneliness, it probably won’t sneak up on you in the middle of the night and slit your throat.
True, this is a story about lonely girls and ordinary days, but the novel is constantly in motion and action. Gnats and dragonflies, grasshoppers and bees spin madly overhead like a ceiling fan, ghosts dance the chakacha with their hips. On every major holiday, the inhabitants of the city of Mapeļi rinse themselves with salt water, smear their elbows and gather in mourning. We move between realms and memories through borderless, unquoted prose. Ayosa is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to access the memories of her ancestors, as well as the collective memory of the city’s history. She often travels to another world/state where she confronts the traumas that haunt her family line, the intergenerational cruelty that haunts them, and larger events such as disappearances, genocide, and the colonial past. Like the things they lost, big and small, Ayos’ visions are big, small, inevitable, and often nightmarish. She exists in the middle between death and life, lost in the memories of strangers, lured by ghosts into the unknown, but also imprisoned by the longing for her mother’s love. She is an in-between—stuck in the memories of a time before he was born, walking the line between life and death, on the verge of understanding the motherly love she longs for and a newfound desire for the world. Manor Brown. When Mama Nabumbo returns, like every other time, Ajosa must decide whether she wants to embrace the outside world with her new friend Mbia Dash or trust her mother and live the life she’s always longed for.
The word lyrical is often overused in blurbs, so one sometimes wonders what the word even means. Pick up a copy The things they lost and find the lost meaning of ‘lyrical’. The prose is beautiful and sensual, filled with the wonders of nature, stamped with the supernatural. It glides and surprises, conjures up characters with words that beguilingly suit the scene, and remains utterly magical—Mbiu’s mother, who was shot when she tried to rob a bank, “looked like a carrot grater when they were done,” the girl window “chewing on ice , cube by cube, as if it had a mouthful of hazelnuts”, Nabumbo Promise Brown “came and went like blackjack needles, blowing where the wind decided” and often “fell in on itself”. In your mind are “lives nesting inside each other like babushka dolls”. Unspoken things can lead to camaraderie, like cream of soup left on the table too long.
The things they lost by Okwiri Oduor teases with a wonderful pun. Ayosa’s grandmother, Lola Freedom, is a free-flying pilot and doctor whose actions affect her offspring’s freedom of mind, her mother, Nabumbo Promise, is known for breaking promises. Things They Lost paints the most beautiful and disturbing picture of absent mothers and people mired in generational trauma. It is an ode to loneliness and the desire to escape and find your own story. It’s about the unspoken things beyond language and the memories—both personal and collective—that haunt us. It’s a coming-of-age story with angst, nightmares, hilarious annas, near-drowning and death on the radio. It’s a beautiful story of all the things they lost.
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