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Review: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu, David Demchuk's The Bone Mother and Pierre-Luc Landry's Listening for Jupiter

Kintu

By Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Transit Books, 446 pages, $24.50

Kintu has been called "the great Ugandan novel"; it is hard to not draw comparisons between what Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi does here and Chinua Achebe's work in Things Fall Apart – it is that good. More properly, Kintu – a family saga about a curse unleashed in 1750 and its effects on the members of a clan in 2004 – is a novel of Buganda, the subnational kingdom that long predates the Ugandan state. Buganda as a synecdoche for the Uganda itself says a great deal about modern Uganda. Certainly Makumbi's characters' claims as ethnic Ganda – and, in turn, the family curse's claim on them – are central here. Kintu is a Ugandan novel for Ugandans – steeped in Ganda mythology, its Lugandan words left untranslated, the assumptions of its characters and the history shaping its narrative unexplained. This richness, and the challenge it may pose to some readers, is its own reward, but a novel is more its ethnographic detail. What makes this novel is Makumbi's vision in how the curse travels through her characters – and then imagining how they will be rid of it.

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The Bone Mother

By David Demchuk, ChiZine, 244 pages, $19.99

Playwright David Demchuk's first novel opens as a series of fairy tales. Each story begins with a photo from the archive of Costica Acsinte, the Romanian photographer who took portraits of village life between the world wars. Out of these images Demchuk imagines monsters among the villages of Eastern Europe before the Second World War: mermaids, wolf-men, witches, women of superhuman strength – their difference a source of beauty and wisdom. And then, 40 pages in, there is a story with no introductory photo. The narrator takes the bus from Winnipeg to Minnedosa, Man., and orders a cruller at the local Timmy's. It is in this story, where we glean hints of something that happened during the war that has followed the narrator's family to Canada, that things become scary. Well crafted and significant in its own right, Demchuk's novel seems all the more important in light of recent displays of far-right and overt Nazi hatred. As one narrator says, "Some stories need to be told time and again. Every generation forgets. Every child learns anew."

Listening for Jupiter

By Pierre-Luc Landry, translated by Arielle Aaronson and Madeleine Stratford, QC Fiction, 218 pages, $19.95

It's February and Montreal hasn't seen snow. "Montreal is turning into Los Angeles," Hollywood thinks, as he plants beans at his dead-end job. Hollywood works in a literal graveyard. Hollywood is a person, not the neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, snow blankets Europe and Toronto. Xavier – in London to pitch a drug for the pharmaceutical company that pays him handsomely but fills him with ennui – cocoons in hotel minibar booze and work samples. Something is wrong with the weather. Something is also wrong with Xavier and Hollywood. In these insomniac times of a natural order thrown out of whack, the two men meet, but only in dreams. Pierre-Luc Landry's magic-realist novel, here translated by Arielle Aaronson (Xavier's sections) and Madeleine Stratford (Hollywood's sections), originally won the Ottawa Book Award for French Fiction in 2016. A deceptively light story about two men sorting out the conundrums of themselves, it leaves much to consider – on perception, reality, synchronicity and meaning – after the final page.

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