I am such a sucker for epic sagas that follow someone's growth over time, so when I realized that A GIRL IS A BODY OF WATER was such a story revolving around a Ugandan girl's coming of age, I was so excited. I don't really think the blurb on the back of the book fully tells you what the book is going to be about, though. I was left with the impression that we were going to follow Kirabo around as an older child, but we actually stay with her as she becomes a teenager and then, an adult. There's also a section where we get more insight on her grandmother, Muka Miiro, and the village "witch," Nsuuta, as well.
Kirabo is a child in rural Uganda who has grown up without a mother. She's mostly been raised by her grandmother, who is very traditional and correct, and Kirabo's wild, tomboyish ways-- playing with boys, demanding to be the center of attention, climbing trees, etc.-- are a source of frustration to her, which end up being why Kirabo takes such an interest in Nsuuta. She tells her that she feels like there are two of her-- a good version and a bad version-- and it's far too easy to let the bad version take control.
We see Kirabo with her friend, their eventual falling out, her first love, her life in Catholic boarding school, and then, once she comes home again, how she navigates the mazes of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society and also what family means and how many forms it can take. Based on this book, it seems that women in this society are largely defined by the role they serve to men. They lose their first and last names when they marry, they are expected to play hard to get and be chaste, bonuses are awarded to the family if she abstains until marriage, and girls are only sent to school to become marriageable and drop out and leave their careers for their husbands.
I think some people are going to fall into the trap of reading this and feeling superior about their own society's gender norms and expectations, but that would be a foolish mistake to make, because many of these problems continue to plague Western countries as well. The only difference is that the biases have become more insidious as more attention is brought to them. Women are still blamed for abuse and cheating, and women are often expected to leave careers for men or continue working while also expected to shoulder the bulk of the housework and child care (often with little or no support from employers). Friendships are still torn apart over boys, and it's often the girls who are blamed for cheating boyfriends and straying husbands instead of the man, who "can't help himself."
The feminist themes in this book and the strong women were wonderful. I loved how the book examined things like privilege, colorism, relationships, and marriage, and I liked that it did all that while providing a fascinating insight into Ugandan culture and history. I don't actually know that much about Uganda, so it was really fascinating to read about how it was negatively impacted by colonialism, their war with Tanzania, and how the traditional beliefs mixed with and/or superseded the christian ones that were imposed on them from England. Even though the patriarchal rules and expectations are harsh, it was surprisingly refreshing to see how the women still found ways to seize power from within, and how Kirabo, as part of a newer generation, was able to push the boundaries still further because of the efforts of the strong women preceding her.
I honestly won't be surprised if this becomes a movie or a mini-series. It's the type of book that gets people talking because there aren't a lot of books out there like it, and it's fun to read because it has a fascinating story and great characters. The beginning is a little slow, but once Kirabo becomes a teenager, it gets so, so good. I'm definitely going to be recommending this one to all my friends!
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
4.5 out of 5 stars