In his hugely impressive Abyssinian Chronicles
Moses Isegawa renders the chaotic swirl of life in Uganda, from a lazy, remote village to the urban rush of Kampala. Containing within its 460 pages weddings, funerals, infidelities, public struggles with corrupt dictatorships (a section called "Amin, the Godfather"), and private struggles with God ("Seminary Years"), this is a first novel of epic ambitions. Narrated by Mugezi, the son of a man named Serenity and a woman named Padlock, Isegawa's book is wild and decentered, moving swiftly and confidently from place to place, from character to character. It is the kind of book that says, just follow, trust me, all these names and passions will sort themselves out and make sense sooner or later.
The prose itself bristles and cooks, with graceful transitions ("This time a year passed without hearing any news from Tiida") and scenes lurching with activity. Isegawa, who was born in Uganda but now lives in the Netherlands, is a master of unexpected verbs and details. Here Mugezi describes his mother's voice:
This woman knew how to irritate me on all fronts: her pathetic country-western girlie whine, xeroxed from a white nun from her convent days, the same nun from whom she had inherited the little tremolos which she sprinkled piously on the last hymn every night, really got to me.
Inconsistencies in the narrator's point of view can mar this novel and arrest its progress. The narrator will suddenly describe interior states he couldn't possibly know about: his mother's depression and loneliness, which she hides from everyone, the deepest thoughts of distant relatives. But for readers hoping to glimpse a foreign world, these bumps in the road are worth the ride. --Ellen Williams
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From Publishers Weekly
Abyssinia may have become present-day Ethiopia, but the title of Isegawa's debut actually refers to UgandaAa "land of false bottoms where under every abyss there was another one waiting to ensnare people." Set in the postcolonial 1970s and '80s, when power struggles are the order of the day, the book is a bildungsroman following the life of narrator Mugezi Muwaabi, as he plots his own independence from tyrannical rulers (his parents) and capitalizes on his considerable natural resources of charm and intelligence. Isegawa clearly means for Mugezi's story to parallel Uganda's, so he devotes much of the book to an almost journalistic account of national politicsAGeneral Idi Amin's rise to power, and his subsequent ouster at the hands of deposed president Milton Obote. But apart from the intended echoes, these passages have little direct bearing on Mugezi's life, and sap the narrative of momentum and vitality. The novel is strongest when it concentrates on Mugezi's antics: he torments his mother by stealing the bobbin from her sewing machine, and breaks the will of one strict priest by smearing excrement on his treasured car. These and other scenes create a coming-of-age story that traces the shifting balance of power in any relationship. Isegawa's language is overheated at times, but it also yields gems, as when Mugezi's grandfather asks for a shave: "The razor crackled and filled with stubble as I dragged it across valleys and ridges. Birds chirped fussily in the tallest gray-skinned mtuba trees. They jumped up and down on one branch." Such keen observations go further toward depicting Uganda than the dry history lessons, but luckily there are many gorgeous passages throughout to offset the distancing effect of Isegawa's sometimes overextended reach. (June) FYI: A Ugandan native, Isegawa is now a Dutch citizen living in Amsterdam. This book was originally published in the Netherlands in 1998.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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