The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author (“There is no power stronger than the power of hope.” 2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

The Perfect Nine are the daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi. They must accomplish several tasks with the ninety-nine suitors who have come for their affection. And, their beauty. They must climb the Mountain of the Moon, scoop up some of the white moon and put it into gourds. Then, upon coming to some lakes, fill the gourds with water, mixing it with the moon.

They must get the hair out of the tongue of an ogre; it is this hair that will cure the tenth sister, the one who is crippled and crawls, for her legs are as a baby’s.

Of course, there are losses amongst the men who accompany the Perfect Nine. Some are sucked into soggy ground; some are eaten by crocodiles while crossing the river; some are victims of despair “allowing pessimism to rein in hope”; some do not heed the wisdom of one sister, Mwithaga, when faced with darkness. She says to them, “Have you not learned much from our experiences? You don’t strike unless you can see clearly what you are aiming at.” But, believing they can see with the eyes of men, they plunged into the darkly dark darkness with their spears firmly held. Foolish men; soon there were sounds of their heads being crunched.

The Perfect Nine are brave and wise. They do not back down to a series of ogres who confront them on their journey. Rather, this is the way they think:

We all swore that no matter how many they were,

The ogres of this world were never again going to make us run away,

Because the more we ran away from them or softened them with bribes,

The more they felt emboldened and panted for more.

My very favorite quote, and a theme oft repeated, centers on hope. It is almost Biblical at its core: “We shall not lose hope as intended by the enemy, we resolved.” But, this epic is studded with admirable qualities: hope, courage, love, and family, all working to overcome the trials that befall us in disability, poverty, or hatred. For the upholding of every admiral characteristic I hold dear, I applaud Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o‘s work.

“The Perfect Nine would seem to be the original feminists. I use the quest for the beautiful, as an ideal of loving, as the motive force behind migrations of African peoples. The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family, and the sense of true divine, in human struggles with nature and nurture.” Prologue

Thank you to The New Press for a review copy of The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.