A portrait of young Kirabo, born out of wedlock to a mother with whom she has no contact, navigating life in 1970s Uganda, where she gets bounced around from the homes of her grandparents, father, and ultimately a boarding school, where she begins to come into her own.
This coming-of-age story also explores how women make other women suffer. We see feminism splinter along class lines, urban and rural lines, along differences of tribe and race. These many sometimes uncomfortable awakenings are woven into Kirabo’s own without once becoming dull anthropology or heartless manifesto. Makumbi neither preaches nor condescends, but with beautiful and subtle prose successfully captures the reader’s imagination ... Makumbi does not allow the reader to think of the myth without also considering the mythmaker. This powerful novel dwells in the universe of power as it relates to love and sisterhood ... Makumbi’s cast of witches, harlots, husband stealers, baby killers, flawed feminists and bossy sisters is so fully constructed and flawed, each one feels alive — even if they are villains, poor allies and perhaps poorer friends. Even in their anger and their harshness, their cruelty and their affection, their hatefulness and longing, there’s something appealing about these characters. Furthermore, the radical empathy of Kirabo, even in her pettiness, is contagious ... Ugandan myth is prevalent in this novel, but readers need no prior knowledge to understand it or be strongly affected by it ... These cadences train you to follow along, and are not hard to understand; it’s impossible to imagine this book without them. Readers have the pleasure of watching Kirabo evolve from childhood cleverness to cunning and wisdom, her awareness of herself and her place in the world increasing all the while. Makumbi’s voice evolves organically, seamlessly, as her character matures ... The reader cannot escape the intimacy of this story. Makumbi’s prose is irresistible and poignant, with remarkable wit, heart and charm — poetic and nuanced, brilliant and sly, openhearted and cunning, balancing discordant truths in wise ruminations. A Girl Is a Body of Water rewards the reader with one of the most outstanding heroines and the incredible honor of journeying by her side.
Unfortunately, this supernatural aspect of the story, though effective as a hook, dissolves rather quickly and is only referenced later in the book when necessary. It is not the power that Kirabo develops and learns to wield, though her own origin story is still compelling ... Kirabo and Nsuuta and even Kirabo’s grandmother Alikisa are treated with such care in the novel, you can almost hear the splashes and smell the earth when the two elders are dancing in the rain in the final pages ... Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is its relevance, from the ideas of mwenkanonkano (feminism) to the importance of having a voice and representation ... As various institutions stumble through the implementation of diversity, inclusivity and equality initiatives that are being forced into email inboxes and communication chat windows, Makumbi taps the shoulders of readers lest they forget the power of being able to tell your own story. Whether it be teaching something new or overwriting something old—A Girl is a Body of Water makes clear the importance of being able to speak for yourself.
Makumbi is a mesmerizing storyteller, slowly pulling readers in with a captivating cast of multifaceted characters and a soupçon of magical realism guaranteed to appeal to fans of Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.