Book review: Kololo Hill by Neema Shah

Published on 18th February by Picador, Kololo Hill by Neema Shah is a debut not to be missed. Striking and heartfelt, this novel has a lot to say. Sincere thanks to Katie Green for my gifted copy.

It’s 1972 and Idi Amin is on the rise. With brutality and fear as his weapons of choice he issues a devastating decree. All Ugandan Asians must leave and leave within 90 days. They can take virtually nothing with them, their property and money are now belong to the state. They can not return.

Through the eyes of one ordinary Ugandan Asian family we experience the fall out of such a situation, and the impossible choices they make; both as families and individuals.

Asha and Pran are a young Asian couple. Married for a short time, after a whirl wind courtship that was hi jacked by their families. They are still in the early days of their relationship, still testing the water and finding the boundaries when suddenly their whole world is thrown into crisis, everything and everyone they hold dear under immediate and terrible threat.

Along with Pran’s parents , Jaya and Motichand, and his younger brother Vijay, their life of relative ease, their business running a local dukan their sense of self and security are lost. The family must begin the painful and seemingly impossible task of looking to the future. But where do they start?

Each have different paperwork, passports and access to different countries. They all have to leave but will it be possible to do that together or will they be spilt even further apart? And how can they protect their house boy December who has served the family loyally for years? For now as a member of one of many ‘wrong’ tribes he too is in danger.

This is a story of displacement, of having to take huge leaps of both faith and fear in order to move forwards. With vivid detail and heart breaking clarity Neema Shah paints a skilful picture of what it meant to be an Ugandan refugee, arriving in the middle of a British winter. Against each slight and knock back we see men and women fighting to both make a new life and hold on to their sense of identity, self and culture.

The characters in the novel maybe experiencing the same trauma but there is no stereotyping of pain or reaction. With well rounded brush strokes each character takes their own path and makes their own distinct choices. For Vijay, his youth and disability shape his reactions, in the same way Pran’s inability to let go of the past shape his .

But for me it was the female characters who really shone through this narrative. Asha is determined, determined not to look back or let her trauma shape the rest of her life. And her mother in law Jaya holds on to the best of what she left behind while struggling to adapt to their strange grey land that is 1970’s Britain.

There are many things I look for in a novel and teaching me about the world I think I know Is pretty high on that list. This episode in history was a complete blind spot for me. I knew nothing about it at all. This novel has opened my eyes, taught me new things and made me thirsty to know more.

As a debut this one is pretty special.

Rachel x