When you’re left with nothing but your secrets, how do you start again?
A devastating decree is issued: all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. They must take only what they can carry, give up their money and never return.
For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing. Will they all make it to safety in Britain and will they be given refuge if they do?
And all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them, threatening to tear the family apart.
From the green hilltops of Kampala, to the terraced houses of London, Neema Shah’s extraordinarily moving debut Kololo Hill explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.
Ever since I first heard about Kololo Hill, I have had a very strong feeling that I MUST read this book. I am a firm believer in the power of historical fiction to illuminate the stories we have a duty to remember, to explore the hurts of the past to help us better understand our present world. So I was utterly thrilled to get my hands on a pre-publication copy. Massive thanks to the author and to Katie Green at Picador for providing me with a beautiful copy of Kololo Hill in exchange for an honest review.
I devoured this book, reading most of it in one night. Right from the opening pages, the power of the story had me gripped. The shadow of Idi Amin looms large, his regime threatening the safety of the characters from the very beginning. And yet, despite the huge, terrifying political events that shake the country, it is one family that carries the heart of this story, and in this way, the book is a surprisingly intimate one. Asha, recently married to Pran, is concerned not only by the bodies piling up but also by her husband’s secretive behaviour, by the gap that has already opened up between them. Throughout the novel, Shah keeps the focus tightly on a core cast of characters, with chapters alternating between the points of view of Asha, her mother-in-law Jaya, and her brother-in-law Vijay. Our exclusion from Pran’s point of view is extremely effective – his motives and behaviour is often as much of a mystery to the reader as it is to the rest of his family.
One of the many aspects that struck me about Kololo Hill, and that really got me thinking, was the economy of the prose. I have to admit, I probably went in expecting lush, exotic, poetic descriptions of Uganda, of the landscapes and the cities, and instead, Shah’s writing is unadorned, piercingly focused, almost journalistic in its matter-of-factness. It works so well – not only did I start questioning my own assumptions, my expectations of poetic exoticism, but it emotionally cleaved me to the characters, whose actions and feelings and domestic realities are so relatable, so real – it was easy to forget that they were fictional creations and to become totally invested in their story.
And I was seriously invested. Reading about their escape from Uganda, my heart was pounding, and I was as tense as I can remember being with a book. It is a kind of writerly alchemy to make the reader care so much about their characters, and Neema Shah achieves this in spades. The fact that this happened, that the expulsion of Ugandan Asians was a real event, sent further chills down my spine, and once again made me think deeply about the power of historical fiction. I have read about these events, but here, in this novel, seeing it through the eyes of characters I had come to think of as friends, as people I cared about – it was a truly emotional reading experience.
The genius of Kololo Hill is that the story doesn’t stop there. Escape is not a happy ending. It is not an ending at all. In England, the family must start again, must try to rebuild their lives, while encountering prejudice and a sense of not being wanted. This section is necessarily less dramatic than what precedes it, but it is no less important – and by this stage, I never wanted to leave these characters. I won’t say too much here, but there is a striking symmetry to Asha’s story in particular that is so cleverly done. I loved her as a character – she provides some of the most nuanced commentary in the book, from her attempts to explain why the expulsion of Ugandan Asians came about, to her refusal to cling blindly to the notion of ‘home’ at any cost.
I could say so much more about this book. It is heart-breaking, devastating, emotional – all the more so for its portrayal of real events, albeit through fictionalised characters. It is one of the most powerful explorations of home and belonging, two themes that fascinate me, that I have ever read. There is a sharp intelligence behind the emotional heft of the story, and, I think, a deeply relevant, non-didactic push for empathy. This novel is both moving and thought-provoking, gripping and reflective, reaching the very pinnacle of what historical fiction can achieve. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Kololo Hill by Neema Shah is out on 18th February from Picador Books and is available to pre-order here.