cover image The Perfect Nine

The Perfect Nine

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. New Press, $23.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62097-525-1

Kenyan writer Thiong’o (Birth of a Dream Weaver) departs from the sprawl of his past novels into an engaging if slight lyrical epic. Combining Homeric verse with oral storytelling tropes—choruses, chants, songs—he retells the origin myth of the Gikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe. The title is a reference to the “perfect nine” (10, in Thiong’o’s retelling) beautiful daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi (the first father and mother) who are married off to men who appear after a prayer. In Thiong’o’s version, 99 men compete for the women’s hands, who in turn compete against them. Gikuyu explains to the suitors that his daughters will “do the choosing,” adding that all couples are to remain living with him and Mumbi. This angers one man, who retorts: “I came to marry to take away, not to be taken in.” He leaves and a few men join him; some of those who remain lose out to the women in archery and riding challenges, or simply quit; others die. The book takes a fantastical turn when Gikuyu and Mumbi issue their final challenge: a quest to steal from an ogre king a hair that can cure their disabled daughter, Warigia. The remaining story is rigidly heroic—evil creatures, heroic deeds, a bittersweet ending—giving this a Disneyesque sheen. Thiong’o’s fans will appreciate this, even if it doesn’t rise to the heights of his most accomplished work. (Oct.)