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.