An Englishwoman in her 30s moves into an apartment without heat but with plenty of rats and noise. She has spent a decade in prison. Faces from the past resurface. As she puts her world together, we wonder what put her away: Did she really shoot that boy by mistake? Who was she aiming at? British writer I.J. Kay’s masterful debut, Mountains of the Moon, holds so much more than that one mystery. It folds readers into an entire life, and it is gripping, technically stunning and truly original.

Lulu is an abused child. Her mother neglects her and wants to be back on a stage; her stepfather beats them; her older half-brother gets the chance to live with his father and leaves. Lulu copes by pretending she is a Masai warrior, running through the hills of “Africa” with her red cape and makeshift spear. The arrival of Baby Grady gives her something to care for; a surrogate mother at 10, she takes Grady up into the trees she loves, escaping the terror of “Daddy” Bryce. A shocking accident sets her on a new path. Twenty years later, when she makes it to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, her dreamed-of “Mountains of the Moon,” she must come to terms with all that has come to pass.

Lulu’s story jumps around in time as it unfolds in determinedly non-chronological order. The result is a dense, challenging novel that is also incredibly rewarding. Seemingly every phrase has a structural purpose and emotional resonance; when one doubles back to check something along the path, a different discovery astonishes. We are two-thirds through when we walk into the relationship that changed young Lulu’s life. In name, this love is wrong, but in Kay’s hands it is beautiful, rendered with pitch-perfect tenderness. It is also a crucial puzzle piece, changing what came before.

Full of hidden gems of connection, the novel begs for multiple readings. One wonders, based on this beyond impressive debut, where I.J. Kay (a pseudonym) will take us next.

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