Review: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Some authors set the bar high with their debut work. Then there are authors like Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi whose first novel succeeds on such a stratospheric level it’s nearly impossible to imagine – or wait for – what she’ll write next.

Kintu is a modern classic, an epic reimagining of Ugandan history told through multiple generations of the cursed Kintu clan. The story opens with the sudden death of Kamu Kintu in 2004, a man whose new 5-CD changer and tiny television made neighbors consider him a thief. Having established the modern setting that prevails for most of the book, Makumbi then shifts gears back 1750 to lay the foundation for the Kunta curse: Kintu Kidda, the governor of Buddu Province, takes an ill-fated journey through a barren landscape to pay his respects to the new king. When he returns home without a beloved solider, the man’s father puts a curse on Kintu: mental illness, sudden death, and suicide will plague his family for generations to come.

The rest of Kintu is broken into stand-alone chapters detailing the life of one cursed relative after another while also exploring the changing landscape in Uganda through flashback and vivid conversation. Each section follows Makumbi’s fantastic structural technique, beginning with the character’s narrative in present day, then spiraling out to fill in historical and personal gaps before returning to the present with fresh perspective.

As the novel goes on, Makumbi reaches back again and again for touchstones she created in earlier chapters, keeping readers fully enveloped in Kintu history – when a ghost tells a character “you’re my Nnakato,” we feel the full force of the statement. Makumbi maintain this delicate balance between present and past so beautifully, so consistently, that when the Kintu clan finally reunites the result is a powerful series of cross-generational reveals.

Winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Prize, which heralds new voices in African literature, Kintu is an important, moving novel about reconciling our modern lives against the history of our ancestors.