The Barefoot Woman: Scholastique Mukasonga

★★★★★

Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother used to tell her daughters that it was their duty to cover her when she died. By shrouding her body in a pagne, the colourful wrapper worn by both women and men, they could preserve decency and allow her soul to safely move on to the next stage of its journey. But Mukasonga was living far away in France when her mother was horrifically murdered, alongside her sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Unable to fulfil her mother’s wish, Mukasonga instead pays tribute to her with this extraordinary memoir. It is a celebration of one remarkable woman, but also of all the women whom Mukasonga knew as a girl: the energetic, creative, passionate, devout neighbours who helped an exiled community to maintain its dignity in the face of racial hatred, and who fought to give their children as normal a life as possible in a world where nothing was normal any more. Blessed with a lyrical and eminently readable translation by Jordan Stump, this little slice of vanished Rwandan life might just end up being one of my books of the year.

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: Lola Shoneyin

★★★

I picked this out at the library as part of my plan to read more fiction set in other cultures, and it was certainly illuminating, though I’m not able to judge how far (if at all) it’s exaggerated in regard to the characters’ beliefs, habits and interactions. Set in contemporary Nigeria, it follows the educated young woman Bolanle as she joins the prosperous household of Baba Segi as his fourth wife. Her arrival worsens the already fraught relationships between his existing wives and, ultimately, will destroy the very foundations of this uncomfortable ménage.

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Lament for the Fallen: Gavin Chait

★★★★

Again, it was the cover that did it. The eerie face, with its scored lines and sunburst of golden rays, reminded me of an ancient tribal mask. I was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between that and the sci-fi plot summarised on the back of the book. Gavin Chait’s first novel turned out to be quite different from any such novel I’ve read before, and not just for its African setting. While on the one hand it offers a sobering future, in which the planet’s ecology has been ravaged by greed, it also shows seedlings of hope, as people strive, even in the darkest days, to create a better world.

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