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Seasons in Hippoland by Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ

This was a slow burn of a book. At first it took a little time to get to grips with the writing style. At times there are issues with the tenses which may well be part of the narrative construction, but could become a little confusing and distracting at times. Certainly wa Ngũgĩ has been able to construct an ethereal style to the writing through the word choice and construction of the sentences that seem to bounce along rather than operate as words on the page.

Set in Victoriana - a fictional East African nation - suffering under the post-colonial dictatorship with an oppressive regime that seems to stifle much of the world in which Mumbi and her brother Mito exist. The rule of the colonialist powers and the issues that come along with colonisation seem to be worsened when the same oppressive style happens from one of your own.

Moving to the remote village of Hippoland from the relative normalcy of city life in Westville operates as both a retreat and a punishment for the young Mumbi. In Hippoland, Mumbi learns about her own family’s contribution to the revolution and the magical stories that talk of love, broken hearts, the government, the pain of oppressive rule, fear, and hope. In hearing about the stories of the past, Mumbi herself comes out of her self imposed mute isolation to become a storyteller in her own right. She becomes who she is meant to be through the process.

It is a reckoning, in its beauty of language. An exploration of the life of those under the leadership of an oppressive regime. But more than this, it is a story of hope and hopefulness within the individual. Reading between the lines, one can imagine that Ngũgĩ is writing about her homeland of Kenya. Like her father, the quintessential East African and renowned writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (author of Petals of Blood and Weep Not, Child), she traverses the delicate balance of setting, political commentary and compelling characterisation.

Mumbi and Mito learn much from their Aunt Sara after they are moved from the city to countryside and use the opportunity to understand the purpose and power of words. Capturing the importance and beauty of storytelling as a cultural artefact in and of itself.

The descriptions of the political situation are wound up in a fable-style of writing with that back canvas of revolution and post-colonial power vacuum that is filled with fear and overt strength. This child like telling of the story gives the narrative a child-like quality; however, the content is far from child like.

Not an easy read, the book drifts along in a dreamy haze with some meandering moments that are beautiful, but don’t add to the overall force of the narrative. It is a reminder that stories, both within the pages of the book and the book itself, can have the power to change people.

Reviewer: Chris Reed


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