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The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi

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A dazzling, genre-defying novel in verse, full of trial and sacrifice, The Perfect Nine is a glorious epic about the founding of Kenya's Gikuyu people and the ideals of beauty, courage and unity.

Gikuyu and Mumbi settled on the peaceful and bounteous foot of Mount Kenya after fleeing war and hunger. When ninety-nine suitors arrive on their land, seeking to marry their famously beautiful daughters, called The Perfect Nine, the parents ask their daughters to choose for themselves, but to choose wisely.

First the young women must embark on a treacherous quest with the suitors, to find a magical cure for their youngest sister, Warigia, who cannot walk. As they journey up the mountain, the number of suitors diminishes and the sisters put their sharp minds and bold hearts to the test, conquering fear, doubt, hunger and many menacing ogres, as they attempt to return home. But it is perhaps Warigia's unexpected adventure that will be most challenging of all.

Blending folklore, mythology and allegory, Ngugi wa Thiong'o chronicles the adventures of Gikuyu and Mumbi, and how their brave daughters became the matriarchs of the Gikuyu clans, in stunning verse, with all the epic elements of danger, humour and suspense.

227 pages, Paperback

First published December 28, 2018

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About the author

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

82 books1,645 followers
Kenyan teacher, novelist, essayist, and playwright, whose works function as an important link between the pioneers of African writing and the younger generation of postcolonial writers. After imprisonment in 1978, Ngũgĩ abandoned using English as the primary language of his work in favor of Gikuyu, his native tongue. The transition from colonialism to postcoloniality and the crisis of modernity has been a central issues in a great deal of Ngũgĩ's writings.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District, as the fifth child of the third of his father's four wives. At that time Kenya was under British rule, which ended in 1963. Ngũgĩ's family belonged to the Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Gikuyu. His father, Thiong'o wa Nducu, was a peasant farmer, who was forced to become a squatter after the British Imperial Act of 1915. Ngũgĩ attended the mission-run school at Kamaandura in Limuru, Karinga school in Maanguu, and Alliance High School in Kikuyu. During these years Ngũgĩ became a devout Christian. However, at school he also learned about the Gikuyu values and history and underwent the Gikuyu rite of passage ceremony. Later he rejected Christianity, and changed his original name in 1976 from James Ngũgĩ, which he saw as a sign of colonialism, to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o in honor of his Gikuyu heritage.

After receiving a B.A. in English at Makerere University College in Kampala (Uganda) in 1963, Ngũgĩ worked briefly as a journalist in Nairobi. He married in 1961. Over the next seventeen years his wife, Nyambura, gave birth to six children. In 1962 Ngũgĩ's play THE BLACK HERMIT was produced in Kampala. In 1964 he left for England to pursue graduate studies at the Leeds University in England.

The most prominent theme in Ngũgĩ's early work was the conflict between the individual and the community. As a novelist Ngũgĩ made his debut with WEEP NOT, CHILD (1964), which he started to write while he was at school in England. It was the first novel in English to be published by an East African author. Ngũgĩ used the Bildungsroman form to tell the story of a young man, Njoroge. He loses his opportunity for further education when he is caught between idealistic dreams and the violent reality of the colonial exploitation. THE RIVER BETWEEN (1965) had as its background the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1956). The story was set in the late 1920s and 1930s and depicted an unhappy love affair in a rural community divided between Christian converts and non-Christians.

A GRAIN OF WHEAT (1967) marked Ngũgĩ's break with cultural nationalism and his embracing of Fanonist Marxism. Ngũgĩ refers in the title to the biblical theme of self-sacrifice, a part of the new birth: "unless a grain of wheat die." The allegorical story of one man's mistaken heroism and a search for the betrayer of a Mau Mau leader is set in a village, which has been destroyed in the war. The author's family was involved in the Mau Mau uprising. Ngũgĩ's older brother had joined the movement, his stepbrother was killed, and his mother was arrested and tortured. Ngũgĩ's village suffered in a campaign.

In the 1960s Ngũgĩ was a reporter for the Nairobi Daily Nation and editor of Zuka from 1965 to 1970. He worked as a lecturer at several universities - at the University College in Nairobi (1967-69), at the Makerere University in Kampala (1969-70), and at the Northwestern University in Evanston in the United States (1970-71). Ngũgĩ had resigned from his post at Nairobi University as a protest against government interference in the university, be he joined the faculty in 1973, becoming an associate professor and chairman of the department of literature. It had been formed in response to his and his colleagues' criticism of English - the British government had made in the 1950s instruction in English mandatory. Ngũgĩ had asked in an article, written with Taban lo Liyong and Henry Owuor-Anyumba, "If there is need for a 's

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 197 reviews
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,736 followers
March 30, 2021
Longlisted for the International Booker 2021

I've seen other reviewers compare this to Homer but for me it's closer to Hesiod's Theogony. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o pays homage to the epic genre with invocations to the supreme creator: 'I implore thee for the power to faithfully tell this story', and replicates the repetitions that indicate an oral form. But this is self-consciously feminist as the Perfect Nine are 'the matriarchs of the nine clans' of the Gikuyu tribe of Kenya.

Transmitting a mythology which welcomes Kenya specifically and Africa more widely into being, this ends with the transmission of values from the founders/parents to their daughters: 'Look for me among those building the nation in the the name of the human'.

Lyrical, politicised, humane, entertaining as well as weighty, and translated into English by the author, this feels like a timely and yet timeless celebration of Kenyan culture.

Many thanks to Random House/Vintage for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,826 reviews1,389 followers
April 14, 2021
Now longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize.

The only other book I have read by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was “The Wizard of the Crow” – an epic, sprawling, satirical, magical-realism account of the fictional African country of Aburiria in post cold war period.

That story was originally designed to be performed aloud in Gĩkũyũ (the language of one of the people groups making up the Kenyan nation) and was then translated by the author to English (so that as English readers we receive the author's voice directly).

This book too has been translated by the author from Gĩkũyũ and one can even more easily imagine it being performed aloud, but in many other ways this is a very different story.

This book is effectively a feminist reworking of the foundational myth of the Gĩkũyũ people – and is best explained by the author from his introduction.

The Gĩkũyũ people trace theirs to Gĩkũyũ (man) and Mũmbi (woman). God put the pair on the snowcapped Mount Kenya, from where they surveyed the lands around. They made their home in a place called Mũkũrũweinĩ. They had nine daughters, but they were actually ten, hence the Perfect Nine. Legend has it that when the girls came of marrying age, Gĩkũyũ went back to the mountaintop and asked God to provide. On waking up one morning, the family found ten handsome young men outside their home in Mũkũrũweinĩ. The ten clans of the Gĩkũyũ people are named after the ten daughters. The epic The Perfect Nine is an interpretation of that myth starting from a question: where did the Ten Suitors come from? I imagined them as the last left standing after others failed tests of character and resolve.

Overall this is a very simple to read tale, like much oral mythology delighting in:

Repetition- the nine daughters are often each referenced in turn;

Real but striking natural features – here snow and volcanoes;

Daunting mythical creatures, representing trials and challenges – in this case mainly ogres;

Heroic quests – here for a magical hair with curing powers;

Split loyalties - the suitors and their own families against the ties of the daughters to their legendary parents;

And the victories of unlikely heroes - with the tenth daughter moving increasingly from the margins to the centre of the tale.

I have seen the book compared to Greek mythology, but while I am no expert on this, I found the strong morality in the tales much closer to Eastern religions and the author has actually said he used a Catalan founding epic as a key inspiration.

Overall this simple tale when set aside his previous epic, showcases the author’s impressive literary virtuosity while still circling around his central idea of a celebration of African language, oral storytelling and culture.

My thanks to Random House UK, Vintage and to The New Press, US for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
January 14, 2023
Somehow I expected more aforehand of this book, longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, but an interesting rendition of a myth at times quite similar to the Odyssey.
To build calls for hard work,
From the one who looks to tomorrow.
To destroy is easy work,
For one who wants to return to yesterday,
Like a grown person wishing to remain a child.

Every human is human because of other humans

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o tells the story of the creation of the clans of Kenya in The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. I was wholly unfamiliar with the topic and enjoyed seeing some familiarities in the story with Western myths, especially The Odyssey in terms of travels impeded by magical obstacles and the suitors flocking together at one point. Adam and Eve in an earthly paradise (and in this case with 10 daughters) come to mind as well. The prose is quite simple, and the messaging of fraternity, mutual understanding, the togetherness of facing adversity could be labelled as such as well.

Still I found this a sufficiently engaging and quick read, offering a peek into the diversity of African storytelling. Be
Profile Image for Marc.
3,110 reviews1,177 followers
June 3, 2022
I do like the solemn tone with which classic epics begin, such as in the Iliad, the Odyssey, or even the older Gilgamesh epic. The Kenyan writer Thiong'o was also clearly inspired by these models, as is immediately clear from his prologue:
“I will tell the tale of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi
And their daughters, the Perfect Nine,
Matriarchs of the House of Mũmbi,
Founders of their nine clans,
Progenitors of a nation.
I will tell of their travels, and
The countless hardships they met on the way,

What he offers is nothing less than an African version of such a mythical story: equally solemn and elaborate, with continuous repetitive elements, references to higher powers, poetic effects, and a beautiful epic ending. So you can safely call this book a kind of African 'origin' epic, built around the patriarch father and mother Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi who want to select a suitable man for their 10 daughters (yes, 10!). But then things go wrong in my opinion: the more than 100 'suiters' who present themselves (a clear nod to the Odyssey) rather predictably have to undergo all kinds of tests, in this case with terrible ogres. This middle piece is more like a children's adventure story. Also, the very clear moralistic undertone (100% woke) reminds of a children's book. Only at the end Thiong'o resumes the epic-mythical tone. So, this book certainly has appeal, but I don't think it's completely successful. (rating 2.5 stars)
On a side note, I was surprised by the author’s adherence to the myth of Bantu-origin in Ancient Egypt. I know there's a lively debate on this, with different opinions amongst Western and African historians. Interesting stuff to look into, later on.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
April 12, 2021
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021

This was one of the books that most interested me on the International Booker list, but it is not an easy one to assess or review.

I have read three of Ngũgĩ's previous novels - The River Between, A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow. All of those impressed me more, and he is undoubtedly a very versatile writer, but I suspect that to appreciate The Perfect Nine properly you have to understand the place of these origin myths in the culture of the Gĩkũyũ people - I think it is the stories that matter rather than the style, which is straightforward verse written in rather plain language. Like the extraordinary surreal epic Wizard of the Crow, this book was originally written in the Gĩkũyũ language and then translated by the author.

An enjoyable read, but I am probably not the best person to review it.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,309 followers
April 6, 2021
Longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize

I will tell the tale of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. And their daughters, the Perfect Nine, Matriarchs of the House of Mũmbi, Founders of their nine clans, Progenitors of a nation.

The Perfect Nine is Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s self-translation from the Gĩkũyũ of his ‘Kenda Mũiyũru’, originally published in Kenya in 2018.

This is his first work of long-form fiction since the brilliant The Wizard of the Crow (2006), again self-translated from Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2004).

The International Booker judges this year have given us a wonderfully diverse list, and this is no exception. It is also the first self-translated novel to appear on the International Booker longlist, although there were two examples in the prize’s previous incarnation as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer in 2014, and in 2008 Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, which won the prize.

In a December 2017 interview (https://projectmyopia.com/interview-w...) the author said:

When you crush hierarchy, and replace it with network, then the cultures held in the different languages generate oxygen. They cross-fertilize. Cultures are able to breathe life into each other. Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures. Take the example of Greek mythology. It was often taught as if it was the mother of all mythologies. I think that Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.

And The Perfect Nine follows this approach, with a re-telling and expansion of the founding myth of the Gĩkũyũ people in Kenya in the style of an epic poem. Ngugi wa Thiong'o has said that the specific inspiration for the story was the 19th century Catalan founding epic Canigó, which is set in the 11th century and centres around Mount Canigou.

The myth underlying the Perfect Nine tells of how Gĩkũyũ (man) and Mũmbi (woman), came to Mount Kenya and had nine daughters, but they were actually ten, hence the Perfect Nine for who they then sought to find suitors. Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s story is, in his words, an interpretation of that myth starting from a question: where did the Ten Suitors come from? I imagined them as the last left standing after others failed tests of character and resolve.

The mystery of the ten daughters, but called the ‘Perfect Nine’ is revealed in the opening pages when each is introduced with their qualities and the tribe which they founded. For the tenth we learn:

Warigia, Matriarch of Mũyũ Clan
Her other name, Wamũyũ, has the same roots as Gĩkũyũ,
But she is also known as Wanjũgũ for playing among beans and peas.
Warigia, the Last One, is also her name, for she was the last born.
She is often missing when the nine are mentioned,
Because, some so claim, she gave birth, unmarried, at her parents’ home.
Surprised by her unerring marksmanship, some say she has occult powers.
Otherwise, how can a child born with crippled legs
Be so good with arrows?
It is said that her teeth were so white they lit a path in the darkness.
When she laughs, even animals follow suit.
Her clan swears by the name Mũyũ.
With her, the nine daughters become ten, the Perfect Nine.

This is something of a rewrite of the original myth I believe as there Warigia instead had a child out of wedlock.

Others of the daughters also have distinctive characteristics, Wanjikũ a healer,
Wangũi who sings and Nyambura aka Mwĩthaga, a rainmaker, qualities both positive and negative. At one point the women are fighting over their choices of suitor:

The dispute took a bitter turn; insults followed:
Wanjirũ, the evil-eyed one.
Njeri, the evil-tongued one.
Wambũi, maker of evil charms.
Wanjikũ, the quarrelsome.
Wairimũ, married to foolishness.
Wangarĩ, the mean-spirited.
Nyambura, the foul-mouthed.
Waithĩra, the lazy.
Wangũi, who never grows up.
Warigia did not get caught up in their quarrels.

But their parents remind them of what each of them brings to the family:

”Who said that honest disagreements sharpen the mind and feed the soul,
But those that sharpen the sword in wrath dull the mind and kill the soul?”
“Wangarĩ!” they all said.
“Who condemned the hyena in human hearts?”
“Wanjirũ!” they called out together.
“Who said that reason must be rooted in good words?”
“Wambũi!” they said in unison.
“Who said that her arts are for healing, not killing?”
“Wanjikũ!” they said in unison.
“Who said that everyone should be given respect?”
“Waithĩra!” they said in unison. “Who rejected foolishness?”
“Wairimũ!” they said in unison.
“Who said, ‘Let us be the rain that puts out fire?’”
“Mwĩthaga!” they said. “Who has a voice that stops wars?”
“Wangũi!” they said.
“And who says that we should always take the middle way?”
“Njeri!” they said.

And generally Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s retelling of the story is one that is both feminist - in the trials that follow to winnow the suitors it is usually the women who overcome the barriers - and pan-African - the suitors come from all over the continent, as well as one that preaches a message of universal understanding and tolerance.

The suitors themselves at one point, realising there are 99 of them but only 10 daughters to choose, start to dispute amongst themselves.

A while ago they were bathing together and sharing meals;
Now they looked more like enraged animals, fangs out,
Each claiming the region he came from as more special than the others, That his people were the elect of God,
That their God was the true God.

And again Gĩkũyũ reminds them of what they share:

Gĩkũyũ said: “We all have descended from the same humans.
We inherited their humanity,
Which now is ours to cherish, nourish, and pass on,
But there are always those intent on scuttling it.
They may dwell among us or come from the outside.
“To build calls for hard work,
From the one who looks to tomorrow.
To destroy is easy work,
For one who wants to return to yesterday,
Like a grown person wishing to remain a child.

“War destroys lives.
Peace restores lives.
The warrior and the warrior bring home trophies of tears.
The peacemaker and peacemaker bring home trophies of laughter.
My only one and I came from far places in search of peace.

Overall, in many respects this is a simple fable, but the dialogue with other foundational myths and universal messages elevate this to another level. An excellent choice for the International Booker list.
Profile Image for Sandra.
218 reviews39 followers
October 1, 2020
Look for me in love, look for me in unity, look for me among the helping, look for me among the oppressed, look for me among the seekers of justice...

I have never sat around a fire and listened while my grandmother told folktales but i have always wanted to and this book brought that feeling to me after I finished it. This is a story that follows the ten daughters of Agikuyu and Mumbi who were the ancestors of the Agikuyu people and their daughters who are the matriarchs of the clans. This is a story of bravery and love and overcoming odds despite our situations and I think we could always use more stories where we win.

I loved the prose in this I have read some other works by Mr. Ngugi and I think this has to be my best writing of his, his choice of words is perfect and really grounds you in the scenery and the flow of the story is very enjoyable. The story is written in verse and I think it adds some novelty to the story and with one word sentences allowed us a peek of the personalities of the ten daughters. I think Africans are finally getting stories with magic and mythology and I love that for us.
If you love mythical stories with beautiful yet simple writing this one is for you

Thank you to New press and netgalley for the ARC
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,612 reviews1 follower
August 30, 2020
Fascinating for an outsider with no idea of Kenya's tribal beliefs. Reads like an epic poem with the advantage it is quite sort. The book follows the original man and woman who find the perfect land, give birth to nine beautiful girls, then a tenth to make it a perfect nine. The girls grow into beautiful women who have various skills and achievements so they are all quite self sufficient. But they need to marry so men are invited to come and show why they should be worthy of one of the girls. The main part of this courting takes place in an odyssey of the women and their suitors across various lands, ogres and other dangers where the morals of the people are displayed and produced. I probably missed most of the symbolism due to my ignorance but nonetheless it was an interesting read.
67 reviews81 followers
October 8, 2020
I really like this take on Gĩkũyũ people. It shows Ngugi’s pride and love for his Kenyan ancestors. “The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi” tells the tale of the ten beautiful daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi—who become the mothers of the ten Gĩkũyũ clans. This is so different from Ngugi Wa Thiogo’s style of writing. It is a kind of Homeric epic. It is his first venture into epic poetry where he chronicles the mythical history of the Gĩkũyũ people in Kenya. Blending folklore, mythology and adventure, Ngũgĩ retells this epic story from a strongly feminist perspective, (wherein the wives do not simply wait at home) with the Perfect Nine being the heroines of their own legend, while also recording the ancient Kenyan customary practices, such as those ceremonies surrounding a Gĩkũyũ wedding and emphasizing the noble pursuit of gender equality, feminism, the desire for peace, black beauty, bravery, love, talent, and wisdom and the necessity of personal courage. As Ngugi notes, “The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family, and the sense of the divine, in human struggles with nature and nurture.”
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,854 reviews1,644 followers
October 8, 2020
The Perfect Nine is a dazzling, genre-defying novel in verse by critically-acclaimed poet and writer which singlehandedly attempts to tackle the absurdities, injustices, and corruption of an entire continent. In his first attempt at the epic form, Ngũgĩ tells the story of the founding of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya, from a strongly feminist perspective. A verse narrative, blending folklore, mythology, adventure, and allegory, The Perfect Nine chronicles the efforts the Gĩkũyũ founders make to find partners for their ten beautiful daughters—called “The Perfect Nine” —and the challenges they set for the 99 suitors who seek their hands in marriage. The epic has all the elements of adventure, with suspense, danger, humor, and sacrifice. Ngũgĩ’s epic is a quest for the beautiful as an ideal of living, as the motive force behind migrations of African peoples. He notes, “The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family; and the sense of the divine, in human struggles with nature and nurture.”

This is a sprawling and startlingly original epic which is steeped in rich cultural tradition and mythology with a rare beauty about it which immerses you in the Kenyan setting from the very beginning. Written in lyrical, gorgeous prose which flows exquisitely page to page, we are treated to an inspirational message about courage and unity; an important message now more so than ever as we trundle through a hellscape of a year. With humour and humility, beauty and brevity, and both timeliness and timelessness, The Perfect Nine is a raw and unflinching depiction of the true Africa described in captivating and beguiling fashion. Political and powerful, entertaining yet thoughtful, this is a humane and exceptional exploration and celebration of Kenyan culture with a distinct and welcome feminist tang. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Harvill Secker for an ARC.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,488 reviews844 followers
Shelved as 'dnf-abandoned'
October 6, 2021
Sadly did not finish
This is a mystical, mythological tale with complicated names and a poetic style, but it just didn't appeal to me. It made history when it was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for translated fiction, so I was keen to give it a go (although I know how often I don't agree with the judges - and I'm not alone there!)

The Guardian has an article about it and the others on the list for translated fiction, so I recommend you read that.

Profile Image for Marcus Hobson.
594 reviews92 followers
April 19, 2021
When I read the description of this longlisted title for the 2021 Booker International Prize, I was very taken by the concept. A foundation myth for the various tribes and the nine beautiful daughters looking for suitable suitors.

I must have had an idea of what I was expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. I love those myth-making interpretations, gods, heroes and men struggling, and the sound of this trial, this marriage competition to select the best husband for the nine beautiful daughters, well it sounded perfect.

Reality was, I enjoyed the stories, but they were very simplistic, almost childlike. I wanted more concrete detail, I wanted to see the characters more clearly. The idea, the concept was so bold and beautiful, but the delivery was just not what I was expecting. The nine daughters, each one the personification of a virtue, each one unbearably beautiful.
Wangūi, for example, has a beauty that made many a neck strain to look at her, but also has another quality:
Her voice once made fighters put down their swords to first hear;
By the time the song was over, they had forgotten all about the fight.

The most successful part of the story for me was the tenth daughter. Yes there are the Perfect Nine, but there is also a tenth girl, who is crippled and unable to walk. She has more spirit that all of them and more tenacity. She is the one who expects to remain at home to look after aging parents, and she is the one who surprises and confounds everyone. In a test of archery, it is she who can still hit the target when others cannot even see it. It is she who will always confound everyone’s perception of her.

Ninety-nine men come from all over the continent to court the perfect nine. To begin with the are set various challenges, until they are all sent on a massive journey to the top of Mount Kenya. They will encounter all types of hardship, some will be eaten by crocodiles and others by ogres, some will find the journey too much and so the numbers will dwindle until only enough remain to marry the perfect nine and the tenth.

What the journey does is provide a way to select the most suitable. When the men first arrive they think that traditional manly solutions are the way forward:
One man stood up, body trembling with rage.
He could hardly manage to get a word out.
“Every one of us suitors owns a sword and a club.
Let’s fight among ourselves. The blows will help sort out the worthy.
The nine suitors who remain standing will have the nine.”

And with the last word, he took out his sword,
And he strutted about, raging like a fighting bull,
Muttering threats, fuelled by the desire to fight and conquer.
The others pulled out their swords and shouted challenges,
Ninety-nine swords shining bright in the dark.
A while ago they were bathing together and sharing meals;
Now they looked more like enraged animals, fangs out,
Each claiming the region he came from as more special that the others.

I have tried to preserve the line layout of this passage, to give more of a sense of how the book is laid out in places – it often feels like verse and that perception is helped by songs and chants within the narrative.

There is a great deal of equality among the nine and their eventual partners, all are to take part in all occupations, all hunt or plant or tend the animals, always in harmony. The only difference is that only the women can bring forth the next generations. This harmony is suddenly burst briefly apart when the nine are asked to choose ten men from which they will draw their perfect suitor and all nine chose the same man first. Having lauded the perfection of each of the nine, for a page or two there is a sudden transformation:
At this time none of the nine had seemed to favour any of the suitors.
But when told to each select any ten suitors for her group,
Each found herself pointing to one man as first choice.
Dispute erupted among them,
Each claiming that her heart had selected him first.

The dispute took a bitter turn; insults followed:
Wanjirū, the evil-eyed one.
Njeri, the evil tongued one.
Wambūi, maker of evil charms.
Wanjikū, the quarrelsome.

Wairimū, married to foolishness.
Wangarī, the mean spirited.Nyambura, the foul-mouthed.
Waithīra, the lazy.
Wangūi, who never grows up.

All these descriptions are so wholly at odds with how they have all been carefully described in such glowing terms just a few pages before.

Some nice touches, but I wanted to see more of the characters, to be closer to them, to see some description, other than just being beautiful. Other than that, great fun.
Profile Image for Areeb Ahmad (Bankrupt_Bookworm).
683 reviews205 followers
March 1, 2021
"Even I, teller of this tale, will first do the same:
Implore the Giver Supreme to bestow peace in my heart, so that
I can render this tale of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi and their Perfect Nine,
Exactly the way the wind whispered it to my soul, when once
I stood on a hill watching swallows flying in the air."

February's prompt for #ReadtheWorld21 (@end.notes and @anovelfamily) is East and Southern Africa. This is my first book by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan writer, and third pick.

Thiong'o is much referenced in my English classes, placed in opposition to Chinua Achebe because of their divergent beliefs about the use of English for creative expression by erstwhile colonies after independence. While Achebe was in favour of adopting it to talk back, Thiong'o is against it and instead advocates for the use of native languages. He himself writes at first in Gĩkũyũ and then translates it into English. The Perfect Nine, his latest work, is different from everything that has come before and is a delightful read.

On the surface, it is quite a simple story told simply without ostentation but Thiong'o expertly subverts the epic genre, usually just associated with its Western progenitors, by employing it in an African context along with Kenyan history and taking help from already existing native oral traditions. At its heart are concord and cooperation. The importance of peace and harmony is regularly highlighted. I particularly enjoyed the decisively feminist bend, the importance given to the ten skilled and independent sisters. Lyrical, hinting at hidden branches, it is an easily readable well-written book.

(I received a finished copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review)
Profile Image for James Kibirige.
83 reviews18 followers
August 31, 2021
The Kikuyu creation myth & epic

I enjoyed learning about the Bantu creation myth of the Kikuyu people of Kenya. The majority of what I enjoyed in this story lies in the information. The creation myth of the Kikuyu has provided context to some of my sketchy knowledge of Kikuyu people. The Kikuyu clans were founded by 9 matriarchs (actually 10 but called 9 full) the 9 and this story is firmly based on the interactions of people. I also really appreciated the audible narration by Benjamin Onyango.

Outside of being an interesting communication on African cultural knowledge the story failed to wow me on the merits of its storytelling. The story is straightforward and very standard, it didn't meet my expectations based on the reviews especially being short listed as a finalist for the booker prize. I expected more.

An interesting first outing with Ngùgì wa Thiong'o; I need to read more by the author to get a better picture of his ability as a writer.
Profile Image for 2TReads.
821 reviews37 followers
December 17, 2020
I really enjoyed this tale. Lessons of perseverance, trust, friendship, and sisterhood, with the trials and adventure that engenders all.
Profile Image for Stacia.
852 reviews110 followers
April 16, 2021
This is the second book I've read from this year's International Booker nominee list. (The other book I read was At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop.)

I think this would actually be a quite fascinating story to hear/watch as told by a griot.

If you like origin & mythology tales, this is one for you. I enjoyed it.

A side note/comparison of the two International Booker nominees I've read: At Night All Blood is Black had a lot of symbolism regarding dualities. In my review of that book, I commented on the symbolism of the hands in the story & of the use of the left (dirty) vs. right (clean) hands by the "chocolat" soldiers to carry the rifles (weapon of the colonizer) vs. machetes (tools of home). In The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, the first wedding gift given is:
"Enabling the Beginning of a New Home
Two machetes, tools for cultivating land, were the first gifts."

So, it just further emphasizes the duality of a gun being a weapon of war while a machete is a tool of cultivating growth/tool of sustenance. And an important gift, at that, since it was the first gift given.

I very much enjoyed reading these two contenders together to explore contrasts & comparisons. They are very different books, though, & At Night All Blood is Black may not appeal as much to everyone (thoughtful but quite grim) whereas The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi is a more universal tale.
Profile Image for Kiran Bhat.
Author 11 books192 followers
April 6, 2022
Just amazing. With this epic poem Ngugi wa Thiong'o has cemented himself as one of the most important living writers working today. The Perfect Nine is the epic of the Gikuyu people. The poem is as timeless and as emotive as any other work of classic literature. I hope that in time it has just a mark on the formation of the global canon as the Iliad or The Aeneid, and provides a space to remind us of the important of the mother tongue in the formations of our world literatures...
Profile Image for aqilahreads.
555 reviews48 followers
December 9, 2020
the perfect nine is a PERFECT read, i cant find anything that i dislike about this book. its about 99 suitors who arrive on gikuyu and mumbi’s land, seeking to marry their beautiful daughters called The Perfect Nine. the parents ask their daughters to choose for themselves but to choose wisely. the daughters along with the suitors then embark on an unexpected journey together - a pilgrimage to the holy mountain, following the paths of their parents.

i came across this book randomly and didnt regret reading it a single bit. its my very first time coming across a very unique style of writing – it was written in an epic poem from african origin and focuses on african folklore. honestly im not really into folklore/myths but i guess its the way how ngugi writes, that makes it such an enjoyable & easy read. also just shows how talented he is as a writer, its my first time reading his work and i am already in love!!!

i love the fact that its such a short read yet focuses on a lot of other things too like female empowerment, hope/fear, courage and the importance of having a family/siblings. my favourite character is warigia, whom is disabled and was cured later by her siblings who successfully hunted a ‘miracle cure’ for her.

“disability of the body does not mean disability of the heart and mind. the heart and mind rule the body” – pg 211

had so much feelings for this book but i mostly felt encouraged and moved after finishing the whole story. ugh i just love everything so much that i didnt want it to end. i think some readers might not be able to fully appreciate the story but i would still highly recommend if you are willing to experience a different kind of writing style with a great story.
Profile Image for Sidharth Vardhan.
Author 23 books699 followers
April 6, 2021
Is it a translation when it is done by the author himself? Or just another face of original work. Either way, I am glad this one got nominated. It is first book in verse I have read from an African author.
Profile Image for Joy.
678 reviews
September 19, 2020
I had high hopes for this one. English language readers are in desperate need of legendry and mythologies from around the world. Unfortunately, The Perfect Nine feels more like a modern attempt at a legend than a deep-seated tale. The plot line and characters are, indeed, engaging and archetypal.

The issue comes with either the contemporary additions or the translation. Having no knowledge of the original legend or language, I am unable to dial it in any more clearly; however, in too many instances, contemporary idioms and cliches break the elevated, epic tone. A disappointment.
Profile Image for Phương.
103 reviews46 followers
September 13, 2020
This is my first approved request on NetGalley so I was really excited to read the book.

"The Perfect Nine is an epic about the origin of Kenya's Gĩkũyũ people, with Gĩkũyũ, the father; Mũmbi, the mother and their ten daughters who made the title of the story, the journeys, and challenges that these women and their suitors took in order to take the daughters' hands.

I absolutely love this take on Gĩkũyũ people that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has shown me. It is an old tale written with such a modern mindset that many other books these days couldn't even achieve. I was amazed and in love many times over with these female figures. All are beautifully described in appearance and character. Each possesses its own morality, bravery, talent, and wisdom. You can clearly see the admiration the men showed in the book. I appreciate the values he spoke of in the book, which include gender equality, feminism, the desire for peace, courage, etc. I was even more surprised to know that all these details were written by a man. Props to Mr. Thiong'o for this.

I did not know the story was executed in poetry form and at first, I thought that the book should be how most stories are. The lines rarely rhymed But as I read more of it, I realized I pay more attention to the sentences than I did most of the other books. He did not abuse big words for flowery but instead used many simple but gorgeous expressions that depict the beauty of Kenyan nature, black beauty, and the ethics that the author aimed for.

My only complaint is that there were many repeating details that seem excessive. I had to reread about Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi's adventure, only with a different perspective. I think they could have been merged together. but maybe I'm not the one to tell. The same things happened to many other lines in many other chapters. Still, I want to give this 5 stars instead of 4 to encourage people to read this.
Profile Image for LindaJ^.
2,170 reviews6 followers
April 6, 2021
This is one of the 13 books on the 2021 Booker International long list.

I do love a good creation story and this was just that - the creation myth of the Gĩkũyũ people, Kenya's largest group of native people, but retold with the matriarchs getting their due.

Ngũgĩ wrote this in his native language of Gĩkũyũ and translated it himself into English, the language of the people who made Kenya their colony. Reading it in audio was a treat, although impossible to keep the daughters straight.

Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi had ten daughters, but the youngest was unable to walk, hence the perfect nine. The daughters were beautiful and talented. Their parents were determined to find them husbands who would respect them as equals and who would remain with them in Kenya. 99 men responded to the invitation to compete for the daughters.

The above is a summary of the myth but cannot do justice to its beauty as a story and its oral tradition. This is a story to be read or listened to over and over.
Profile Image for Fazilet Özdiker.
21 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2023
Bugünün kitabı Ngugi Wa Thiong'o'dan okuduğum üçüncü kitap olan Mükemmel Dokuzlu. Bir Seda Ağar çevirisi. Yazarın, kendi halkı olan Gĩkũyũ halkını anlattığı ve bir efsaneye dayanan kitaba geçmeden önce kısaca efsaneden bahsedeceğim.

Gĩkũyũ halkının kökeni, on klanın kurucu ebeveynleri olan Gĩkũyũ ve Mũmbi'ye dayanır. Çift, Kenya Dağı'nın zirvesinde yaşar ve dokuz kızları olur. Ama aslında kızlarının sayısı ondur ve böylece Mükemmel Dokuzlu oluşur. Kızlar evlilik çağına gelince, babaları dağın zirvesine çıkar ve Tanrı'dan kızları için birer talip diler. Ertesi gün evlerinin dışında on erkek beklemektedir ve Gĩkũyũ halkının on klanı on kızın adını alır.

İşte efsane böyledir. Peki ya Thiong'o ne yapmıştır? Bilinen yaratılış efsanesini yeniden anlatmaktır yazarın görevi aslında. Hayal eder ve ansızın kapıda beliren on erkeğin nereden geldiğine bir cevap arar. Ve böylece, dokuz kızın seçimini nasıl yaptığını açıklayan destansı bir hikâye üretir. Ancak bir fark vardır ve bu fark tüm kitabın içinize işlemesine neden olur. Bu hikâyenin kahramanı kadınlardır. Erkekler tarafından değil kadınlarca şekillenir destan. Erkek kardeşleri olmadığından, her işi kendileri yapar dokuz kız. Toprakla uğraşır, ateş yakar, kıyafet ve silah yapar, evler inşa ederler. Güçlü karakterlere sahiptirler ve akıllıdırlar. Ki bu da onların ilk feministler olduklarının göstergesidir.

Aklın, kalbin ve ailenin birleştirdiği bir hikâye anlatıyor Thiong'o. Açgözlülüğü, savaşı, kavgayı değil barışın ve sevginin iyileştirici gücünü gösteriyor bize. Hem dokuz kızı hem de erkekleri aynı sınava dahil ederek, kadın ile erkeğin eşit olduğu mesajını veriyor. Umuda ve cesarete sarılarak ilerlemenin getirdiği zaferle taçlandırıyor hikâyesini. İnsanın insana zulmünü, insanın hayvana ve bitkiye zulmünü, doğanın gücünü anlatıyor. Gĩkũyũ'nun efsanesinden yola çıksa da bence tüm halklara rehber olacak bir metin koyuyor ortaya.

Hayran kaldım. Ne söylesem, ne yazsam eksik kalacak. Şiirsel, tarihsel, sanatsal ve zarif anlatımını hümanizm ve sembolizmle birleştirmiş Thiong'o. Mutlaka tavsiye ediyorum.
Profile Image for Bogi.
36 reviews1 follower
April 29, 2021
Interesting to learn more about the mythology and stories of a culture I am unfamiliar with.
I am aware this is a reworking of a mythological story so not the author's original idea, but that leads me to wonder what he was trying to achieve with this work.

Not keen on this book being described as feminist as there are several things that don’t sit well with me - the 'nine' all have amazing talents and skills yet their beauty is highlighted as their strongest trait time and again. Their notoriety and worth is judged by how many (male) suitors they have. If you were going to pitch this as a feminist revival of the original story I would not expect their looks to be the focus.

The portrayal of disability for me was problematic - "The Perfect Nine" yet there is a tenth daughter, with a physical disability who is nominally excluded from this group. A magical cure fixes her legs later and from then on she is deserving of love and happiness...?

I didn't pick up on any rhythm or cadence so it did not really feel like what I am used to in a poem, the simplicity in the choice of language was a little jarring. When I think epic poem, I think majestic and elegant descriptions. I accept that I was reading a translation and I’m sure the original piece sounds completely different.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
172 reviews9 followers
November 10, 2020
I thought this one was genre-defying, as it claimed to be.

It's easy to get into the story, and easy to follow. While I had a bit of trouble remembering the names, I could easily follow what was going on. One of the pros is that it really puts you in a mood as if you're hearing your great grandmother tell a tale or legend from her ancestors. This is the best I can describe how I felt. The mood created was marvelous.

It also put me in a thinking mood; thinking about life, about Gods, spirituality, legends, feminism, heaven and so much more.

I love reading about African folklore. They are always such enthralling and vivid stories, histories, legends and myths. It's fun, different, and always leaves me wanting more.

It's a quick read, easily can be read in just one sitting.

If you're looking for something new, rather than the good old Greek myth retellings, dive into this one. You will love it.
Profile Image for Kit Wren.
264 reviews11 followers
April 8, 2021
Decolonization is a term that in the past decade has migrated from obscure academic corners to casual conversations, slogans, t-shirts and messenger bags. I first remember coming across it in the essay by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing The Mind. In that essay, Thiong'o lays out his position on choosing to write in his native Gĩkũyũ language so forcefully that it is not really a defense; it is an assertion, an invitation for you to defend your irrational position of anglocentrism:

"I believe that my writing in Gĩkũyũ language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities out Kenyan languages [...] were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the language of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that impreialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation."

And since 1977 that is how Thiong'o has conducted his career, writing in Gĩkũyũ and then taking care of translations himself if absolutely necessary. His first novel written in this language, Devil on the Cross, was written on a roll of toilet paper while he was a political prisoner in Kenya, and I will always remember how this bizarre novel completely out of nowhere radicalized an ex-military student who had been resisting the gentler pleas for African dignity from Achebe, Armah, and Emcheta. I love Thiong'o's novels for their unpredictability, vividness, and their resistance to the back-handed compliment of "universality." You cannot relate back to your own life what happens in Wizard of the Crow, when an impossibly corpulent dictator suddenly starts deflating like a balloon. Books should be windows, not mirrors.

Thiong'o is furthering his linguistic challenges to hegemony and expanding them into mythology with this latest book, a retelling of a Kenyan creation myth, and ironically, it seems to reaffirm the concepts like universality and the idea of all humanity as one big family, that previously seemed to be insufficient or weak-hearted deflection from the specific issues of colonial struggle. As an epic, it is relatively straightforward, with no complications. For someone coming in expecting the weirdness of Thiong'o's novels, it can be a letdown, though that is not to say there is nothing weird at all in it, as the Ogre Who Shat Without Stopping in chapter 13 will attest.

Though I am not giving it full marks, I do think that The Perfect Nine stands well as a furtherance of Thiong'o's mission and legacy. ps: give him the nobel prize you cowards.
Profile Image for maritareads.
118 reviews17 followers
April 17, 2022
3.5 stars

This is a well written Kikuyu epic that has me wishing I could see a live adaptation of origin stories from Africa based on actual myths from our communities, rather than the singular fantasy of monarchy that some Africans or people of African descent insist should be our legacy to counter racist narratives.

Anyway, this is action packed and fast paced. It’s an expansion on the simplified origin story of the Agikuyu that I was taught in school. Thiong’o puts women front and centre of the narrative. Everything revolves around them and the men in the story are expected to sacrifice for them. It’s a good tale of sisterhood, community and comradeship. Though I don’t know why they did the youngest sister like that.

A little gripe I have with it is that some of the writing can easily be found in a book written for children. I mean surely Mr. Thiong’o can do better description than “darkness darker than darkness”. The last book I read had a better description of darkness and I rated that 2.5
Profile Image for Gregory Duke.
662 reviews87 followers
April 25, 2021
Ngugi wa Thiong'o succeeds in the difficult task of making an epic work in the contemporary literary landscape. Maybe that's because I'm less versed in Kenyan mythology and the general literary tradition, but, regardless, this feels so life-affirming in a powerful way. The ending made me tear up which took me by surprise. In general, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's verse style is sparse, and, as epics go, the story is economical, yet he hits the right notes to confront the form's lack of deeper characterization, making it a poem that, by the end, has the reader connected to the beauty of blackness, womanhood, and the Kenyan culture/the united vision of Africa he portrays so simply yet vividly. Sad this didn't make the shortlist over something like The Dangers of Smoking in Bed or the The War of the Poor, especially considering his excellent, fluid self-translation.
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