The novel is rich with Luganda words, and steeped in ancient Ugandan folklore, making it an immersive read. I loved it. As one of the characters says: "Stories have such power you cannot imagine."
I find it difficult to fault The First Woman. Makumbi is an unequivocally brilliant writer who, despite already having two excellent novels under her belt, has still not achieved a status that matches her virtuosity. She is a writer whose name should absolutely be uttered in the same breath as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A backdrop to much of the book is Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Schoolgirls are regularly ushered from class to be told that their fathers have been “taken”. But, ebulliently defying the oppressions it depicts, this is a novel bursting with resilience and warmth. Snappy phrasing (the “elastic smiles” of the insincere) gives zing to its prose. Bouncy humour abounds: a shapely backside is “sakabuzoba spesulo, shock-absorbers special”.
The First Woman is a lively, engaging read, and Makumbi cleverly braids the immensely personal – Kirabo’s yearning for a mother who appears to want nothing to do with her – with far larger scale social and political shifts. It is a novel that deliberately meanders, and veers between delivering condensed gouts of information with more leisurely set pieces; but its energy derives from its considerable wit and the charm of its central character.
Makumbi’s depiction of women’s fraught relationships with one another is spun into Kirabo’s tale without capsizing the novel into the nebulous waters of anthropology. Makumbi’s skill lies in the transition of Kirabo’s narrative voice from that of the fanciful and guileless child of the first few chapters into the accomplished and discerning young adult we see at the novel’s conclusion. Her intimate prose is charming and compulsively readable. With equal parts wisdom and wry humour, she casts Kirabo as a character you care about and hope will ultimately reconcile herself to her mother’s abandonment of her. The First Woman is a refreshing bildungsroman that offers both a formidable heroine and an ornate snapshot of 20th-century Uganda.