The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Cover of The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Written in verse and in his first attempt at the epic form, Ngũgĩ tells the story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya. Heralded as a feminist retelling, it blends folklore, mythology, adventure and allegory, while chronicling the challenges set forth to 99 suitors for the ten daughters, called the Perfect Nine, of the Gĩkũyũ founders. The challenges ranging from the physical to the mental to challenges of the spirit, The Perfect Nine has elements of adventure, suspense, danger and humor all wrapped up in a rather compact volume.

This is my second read by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and it is vastly different from the other piece that I read. This epic poem tells the tells the story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya. At the start of this novel, I didn’t really know anything about Kenya, and I would argue that I still don’t, but I know a little more and I definitely have a greater appreciation of the mythology/folklore of the area. This beautifully woven tale speaks of gender equality, adventure, and being kind to each other. It was a surprisingly easy read for being written in verse about a subject I knew nothing about, but I found myself sucked into the story each time I opened it.

Seeing that a book is going to be a modern epic poem written in verse is initially a bit daunting. Some epic poems use complex language and either sacrifice the story for the beauty of the verse or are impossible to read because the verse wasn’t considered enough. The also commonly marginalize minority groups, but this is a more feminist epic poem. When I think of epic poems I think of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, and while the founding of a people is a suitably epic theme to be in an epic poem, I don’t normally consider a modern writer writing them. However, after reading this I am thinking that more epic poems should be written by modern authors.

This novel while still being an adventurous epic, isn’t the typical male-centric epic. “The Perfect Nine” can do anything that their male suitors can do and sometimes even more. The novel discusses tasks not being divided between men and women, but just by who had the best ability to complete the task. The women are warriors and leaders, while simultaneously being beautiful, gentle and creators of art. They aren’t just the love interests of the male suitors, it actually is more of a flip. We get to know them better than the men, who would be traditionally more center in these epic poems.

However, something that I want to touch on is the depiction of disability with the youngest daughter. I loved how badass she was when she was introduced despite not having fully developed legs. She still knew herself and her mind, she was the best marksman, and she was still deserving of love even though she wasn’t like her more perfect sisters. However, as the story went on, her disability was healed, which is something that happens a lot in mythology and fairy tales, but I was really hoping that this would maintain the stance that she could be this amazing woman even with her disability. She was still badass after her legs were healed, but the idea of her was tarnished by the push for conformity. I understand that this is probably how it happened in the original, so I tried not to let it bother me too much, but it would have made it just a touch more modern and more inclusive if she’d been left alone.

Overall, I would recommend this for readers interested in African mythology and folklore, modern interpretations of epic poems, lovers of epic poems in general, and readers who really like seeing a variety of ogres in their adventures. While interesting I don’t find myself particularly drawn to reading more epic poems, however, I think I will still push forward with my plan to read more novels by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Have you read The Perfect Nine? What did you think? Do you like to read epic poems? Do you have any other recommendations from Kenya? Let me know down below!

Cover of The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Important Bits:
Length: 240 pages
Published: October 6th 2020 by The New Press
Content Warnings: Blood, violence,
Awards: None yet.
Also by: The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Wizard of the Crow (2004), In the House of the Interpreter (2012), Birth of Dream Weaver (2016), Minutes of Glory (2019) and many more.

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