I first encountered Okwiri Oduor’s work in 2014 year when she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize, which she won. I remember being moved by the quaintness of the story titled “My Father’s Head,” her surreal, slightly meandering style. With her debut novel, Things They Lost published in April by Simon and Schuster, Oduor takes us to a dreamy East African world where women are at their most powerful when they lean into the multiple selves and worlds they embody.
If a carnival became a town, it would be Mapeli Town, where Things They Lost is set. The East African town is full of strange people. There are the Fatumas, a co-joined creature pulled out of the sea 400 years before, “somewhere between the Comoros and Zanzibar.” There is Jentrix who runs the apothecary and Temerity his daughter. There is Mbui the throwaway girl who sits by the window and watches everything while her cat Bwana Matambara, purrs on the ledge. Ms. Temperance the “caramel-tongued poet” reads poetry every day at noon. Sidano, the owner of Muthue Must Go Café is as mysterious as the bar with hardly any customers. Tying this village of wondrous characters is Ayosa, the dreamiest, broodiest 12-year old girl you’d ever know. She is also strange. A fisherman once remarked that from a distance, he “could not tell if Ayosa was really a girl or if she was a spirit child.”
A bit more about Mapeli Town. It is named after a British woman named Mabel Brown. Mabel came to Kenya a missionary but, like all badly behaved women, left the church and built a life for herself, going through several men along the way. Four generations later, she’s birthed a lineage of women bitten by wanderlust. They leave their children behind to explore the world. Ayosa is the troubled child of one of these women named Nabumbo Promise. A traveling photographer, Promise would leave Ayosa alone in the house for months while away on assignments in various parts of the world. Ayosa describes her mother as “a tumbleweed—she’d come rolling from far-off places and was full of knots and shingles and thorns.” The tension of their relationship is the emotional heart of the story, where all the pain, traumas but also humor and the possibility for boundless love are concentrated.
This tension derives from Ayosa’s gift, one of those kinds of gifts that are also curses. Ayoosa can relive other people’s memories. Being able to access your mother’s memories is clearly a kind of power for sure, but it is also a burden. She knows too much of her mother’s and grand-mother’s many secrets—the half-truths, mistakes, hurt, and traumas that have shaped them into the flawed beings that they are. Notwithstanding, Ayosa’s gift is a powerful access to a wealth of generational knowledge shared among women. Her ability to see the past links things that must not be kept separate—that women’s traumas are connected as is their power to invent new selves.
I love the book because it is crowded with women whose lives contain lots of stories, spanning generations. Women with secrets, who have known hardship, made tough decisions, out of the will to survive but also out of selfishness, which, as the novel tells us, is also an act of survival, for women. The novel gathers these women’s stories and channels them through Ayosa, a girl who is on her way to becoming a woman. In this journey of becoming, she has to come to terms with the fact that women in her family have a history of unruliness and that coming of age means figuring out for herself where the beauty in such a chaotic existence lies.
You should read this novel because the characters are full of surprises, and the writing is magic. The enduring feeling in reading this book is one of wonder. Wonder at Ayosa as her questioning and seeking and sheer love for the women in her life will guide you through the mysteries of inter-generational intimacies. Things They Lost is an achingly beautiful book. It will take you in and out of reality, into a story and out through a picture. It will bring you into the company of characters who straddle worlds and move through space without rules of geometry.