I don't read enough fiction from outside the US/UK/Canada, so I was happy to see this book translated from the Portuguese by an author from Mozambique make the Tournament of Books. It's a short, searing story of a widower who, crushed by grief and anger, takes his two young sons out of the city they've lived in and into the wilderness of an abandoned game preserve, then rechristens them and tells them there is no longer any other world, no other people. Just the three of them, their uncle, and their guard, Zachary.
The narrator is 11-year-old Mwanito, the younger son, who remembers almost nothing of his life before the move (at the age of 3). His older brother, Ntunzi, remembers more, and is less invested in their father's stories. That the father has had some sort of psychotic break seems clear early on, but Mwanito accepts his father's odd behaviors and their isolated life because it's mostly all he's known. It's not until a woman shows up--the first woman Mwanito can ever remember seeing--that the facade begins to crumble.
As does the book overall. The first half of the book, detailing their barren life in the abandoned game preserve, with the father's rants against God and mystical diatribes about the world around them, is fascinating stuff, kind of a hallucinatory dream. But once the woman appears, the story stumbles. We learn the full backstory of Mwanito's mother, which is helpful, but there are coincidences which we know happen in real life, but are hard to pull off in fiction.
Mwanito as a narrator is awfully self-aware, and awfully sophisticated in his thought processes, given his upbringing. If the first-person narration were more reflective, it would be one thing, but Mwanito's very adult thinking is presented as happening while he's 11, something I had a hard time buying at points.
Finally, for me, the female characters had me a little discombobulated. I don't want to make generalizations about men writing about women, because there are men who do write women very well. I don't think this is one of those men, though. The women come across as completely male-obsessed, and one has some disturbing sexual acts. Sure, there are women like that, but in this male-centric book, it feels uncomfortable and wrong.
On the plus side, though, Couto uses poems as chapter epigraphs and introduced me to the works of Brazilian poet Adelia Prado and Portuguese poet Sophia de Melle Breyner Andresen, both of whom I want to find out more about. Beautiful stuff.
So, I started out really liking it, but felt less keen by the end. Still, I'd keep an eye out for other books in translation by Mia Couto. He's a strong writer.