This little book is excellent, but don’t be fooled by the brief page count; it takes more time than you might expect.
Pumpkin is a 9-year-old girl growing up between two households, competing for her father’s attention, dealing with her mother’s alcoholism and her stepmother’s disregard. And because she’s growing up in Zambia in the 1970s, there’s some violence from across the border as well. Then, flash forward to her as a grown woman: she thinks she’s made peace with her parents, but the scars from her childhood continue to distort her life.
I found this book very engaging, with a writing style that soon immerses the reader in the story and makes it easy to relate to Pumpkin and her experiences. The characters are believable without having to be explained, the protagonist especially; Pumpkin often behaves poorly, as both a child and an adult, but after accompanying her through some experiences that – though relayed in an understated fashion – are pretty traumatic for a child, we can understand why. Often in fiction characters who have been damaged in some way will isolate themselves, but in my experience Pumpkin’s story is more common: she’s desperately grasping for relationships even as her mistrustfulness causes her to sabotage them.
Meanwhile, I appreciate the author’s craft here: each chapter has its own arc, with a beginning, middle and end; though this is certainly a novel, several chapters are self-contained enough to work as short stories. The writing is good and very readable, and the details are vivid and bring the scenes to life. I do wish the publisher had invested a bit more in a copyeditor, as there were a couple of unnecessarily confusing moments (I didn’t realize till near the end that BanaBee is Bee’s mother, for instance).
But the publisher's biggest mistake here is that they apparently haven’t marketed this book at all. Which is a shame, because I suspect it would appeal to a wide audience. I would recommend this to English-speaking readers who haven’t read much from Africa, or to anyone looking for an engaging character study.