‘The Perfect Nine’ by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Review)

Those of you with good memories may remember that when I broke off this year’s International Booker Prize journey, I had yet to make one last stop, mainly because the library copy I was relying on stubbornly refused to arrive.  Well, it took a while, but the nice people at our local library finally came good, which means I’m able to finish the journey, almost six months after I started it.  But was this final book worth the wait, or should I simply have chalked it up as a lost cause and started counting down to the 2022 longlist?  Well, there’s only one way to find out, so let’s take a trip to Africa to meet a very special family 🙂

*****
The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
– Harvill Secker, translated by the author
What’s it all about?
The Perfect Nine is the writer’s attempt to explore the background of his people’s origin myth, which traces them back to a couple living on a mountain who had ten daughters.  One day, these women married ten men, and this explains the origins of the ten clans of the Gĩkũyũ people.  All well and good, but where did these men actually come from, and what happened before the weddings?

That’s where wa Thiong’o’s book comes in, with the Kenyan writer (re)imagining the creation myth and producing an epic tale explaining where the men came from and how the women made their choice.  It’s a beautiful tale, superbly told, and even if it’s a story whose origins lie in the past, it’s actually rather modern in the way the story is shaped not by the men but the women, and by how a woman with a disability is at the heart of the tale.

In The Perfect Nine, it’s not ten men that arrive to ask for the hand of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi’s beautiful daughters, but ninety-nine.  Initially, the visitors from distant lands want to fight among themselves for the honour of winning a bride, but Gĩkũyũ soon puts a stop to that.  Instead, he sets them a quest.  The men are to accompany the nine elder sisters on a journey:

“And because you are now well stretched and fully rested,
I will send you on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain,
You and the nine, to walk the walk we once walked,
Follow the paths we once followed,
Drink from the calabash of life from which Mũmbi and I once drank.”
pp.88/9 (Harvill Secker, 2020)

What follows is an epic mission where fast-flowing rivers and crocodiles are the least of their worries.  There are strange things dwelling in the mountains and forests of the land, and the further the group travels, the more the number of suitors dwindles…

The title can be explained by the way their parents refer to their daughters.  The arrival of the youngest daughter, Warigia, turns the nine into the Perfect Nine (don’t ask me why…), a group of women who are fierce warriors, stronger, faster and wiser than the men who court them.  Each is to be the mother of a clan, but the writer makes sure the reader knows of their prowess so as not to mistake them for passive matriarchs.

However, in a fairly short book packed with characters, the elder nine do blend together somewhat, and Warigia is the one who shines brightest.  She’s unable to walk from a young age, but is still an integral part of the story – as she says:

“Disability of the body does not mean disability of the heart and mind.
The heart and the head rule the body.” (p.211)

She’s very different from her sisters, not least because her choice of suitor is made right at the start, while the other nine bicker over who should be in their group of admirers.  She also has some secret talents, hidden even from her family, which will come in handy when trouble strikes.

The Perfect Nine is a story broken up into many short episodes, an epic in unrhymed verse, usually divided into five-line stanzas.  There’s a clear oral nature to the work, as if the story is being told around the campfire, often by the nine elder sisters acting as a chorus.  It’s beautifully written, and in my first taste of the Kenyan author’s work, his translation certainly does justice to his original.

Another prominent feature is the almost fairytale air to the work.  Attentive readers will soon pick up on the symbolism and repeated ideas, not least of which is the importance of the number nine:

Mũmbi said:
“I carried the Perfect Nine in my womb,
Each for nine months,
All in all, ninety months.
In my house, blood will not be spilled over any of the nine,
Unless that of a goat for food or blessings.” (p.59)

There are plenty more examples, too, with the visiting men sleeping for nine days and nine days passing between each wedding.  However, it’s not just the number nine that lends the book a magical feel, with the journey to the Mountain of the Moon seeing the travellers come up against a series of magical ogres.  Believe me, this is not your average hiking trip…

An enjoyable easy read and a work blending origin myth and imagination, The Perfect Nine will appeal to anyone interested in this kind of story.  It’s a compelling tale of a journey through the darkness, a sort of African Odyssey – and, of course, an attempt to give more depth to the story of a birth of a people.

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I quite enjoyed my first taste of the Kenyan maestro’s work, and I’m sure I’ll be getting to another of his books in due course.  However, in truth, it was a rather slight novel, and in the end, it finished up just outside my top six.  There’s a lot to like about the story, and wa Thiong’o is certainly an excellent writer, but if I’m honest, it’s not one that will linger in the memory, so unfortunately, it misses out on my personal shortlist.

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Probably for the reasons noted above.  In a year where the judges seemed to be looking for anything but the conventional narrative novel, The Perfect Nine certainly seemed in good company, but I suspect it was just a little too simple and harmless for the official judges.  Another case of right author, wrong book?  You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment 😉

*****
Having finally made it to Africa (and survived the many ordeals the sisters and their suitors went through), it’s time to let the curtain fall on the 2021 edition of the International Booker Prize.  Given the late nature of this final review, though, we’re actually nearer to the unveiling of the 2022 longlist, so there isn’t long to wait until the next baker’s dozen of translated wonders are revealed.  I’m certainly keen to see what they’ll be, but in the meantime, I’ll be reading more books that hope to be contenders.  See you when the next list appears…

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