Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor review – a magical debut

A 12-year-old girl in rural Kenya has the power to see into her country’s painful past in this compelling, beautifully written novel

It’s the 1980s and 12-year-old Ayosa Ataraxis Brown lives in the fictional town of Mapeli, in the hills and forests of Kenya’s Rift valley. She declares herself “the loneliest girl in the world”, with only a transistor radio and the daily broadcasts of a poet named Ms Temperance to link her with the wider world. Her metaphysical companions are the Fatumas who haunt her house, “creatures of the attic, half girl and half reverie”, pulled from the Indian Ocean by a fisherman 400 years ago.

When her mother could not deal with the young Ayosa, she would leave her to the Fatumas, to soothe her crying and sing her to sleep. Although the house shakes with their grievous wailing when death notices are broadcast on the radio, no one else can see them; they “let all their parts slacken”, melting their human forms into the “jagged spokes” and “sticky, bitter gel” of an aloe plant in a seagrass pannier to conceal themselves from outsiders’ eyes.

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