‘For a long time,’ writes the novelist Alain Mabanckou, ‘I let people think my mother was still alive’, a lie that ‘only served to postpone my mourning’. He didn’t go to her funeral, despite his family’s fury. In this memoir, he returns to Pointe-Noire, the city in the Republic of Congo where he grew up, and where his mother, who was abandoned by the man she was going to marry, could live as ‘a woman from nowhere’. He meets prostitutes, chancers, and countless nieces and nephews. His half-brother turns up at a reading, wasted and determined to grab the microphone. He finds that his old school has been named after a French colonial who ran a slave racket and that his mother’s cousin, a ladies’ man nicknamed the Grand Poupy, has married a woman he once adored.
He writes about all this in short, inconclusive chapters that seem initially a bit disconnected. It’s not just the prose; Mabanckou, too, seems oddly detached. At first I found this frustrating – especially because it didn’t seem to frustrate him. Then I realised that the moment I was waiting for – the encounter, the epiphany, the madeleine – was never going to come and