Book review: Kololo Hill by Neema Shah

I can’t remember the last time I read a book in a day but when I started Kololo Hill, I just could not put it down. It was the best Sunday – curled up in bed, coffee and biscuits by my side, just enchanted for hours by this stunning book, which also has the most stunning endpapers, a term Neema kindly taught me over on twitter! I first came across it via Priya Mulji, whose book reviews I love, and I was kindly sent a review copy by Picador Books and I am so very grateful.

Page after page, I devoured the words, captivated by the story of an Indian family, living in Uganda, East Africa, whose world was about to be turned upside down, just like other Asians in Uganda in 1972 at the time, being told that they had to leave the country within 90 days, whilst already battling the daily struggles of curfews and unrest in the country under Idi Amin, who gained control after Uganda’s independence and made the announcement that all Asians must leave.

I too grew up in East Africa, but in Kenya, as a third generation Kenyan, and through Neema’s descriptions of the lives of newly married Asha and Pran, brother Vijay, mum Jaya and her husband, as well as their ‘house boy’ December, I relived my own childhood with great parallels drawn between their lives and mine. I loved the Swahili references dotted around occasionally through the book to which I could relate as well as the descriptions of food that I too grew up with.

Aspects like going to someone’s house and eating certain types of food made me so nostalgic as we did exactly the same and it was so interesting to see how though separated by borders, some traditions were just so similar.

I adored how the book covered family dynamics, secrets, tough decisions and also gave such an insight of what it must have been like at the time trying to leave everything you knew to start afresh in a country with hardly anything! That too leaving a business that you have put your blood, sweat and tears into and not knowing what sort of employment you’ll be able to take in a country unknown to you! That takes a lot of bravery and in this book was a story of hope, positivity, belief and faith.

Though this book is fictional, it really moved me and I learned so much about the expulsion that it actually made me spend hours researching and watching documentaries afterwards as I was so intrigued to know what it was like for other Asians who had to leave under similar circumstances at the time and who are now fully settled here in the UK.

The description of how Jaya’s husband came to East Africa from India by sea also gave me a glimpse of how it must have been for my dear grandfather who I sadly lost last year, who did the same on a steamer ship at a very young age with hopes and dreams of a better future in Kenya.

Due to the expulsion, the family had to move to the UK in November 1972, facing a tough unfamiliar UK winter after years of glorious heat in Uganda, first staying in a military base before moving to London whilst Asha’s husband Pran ends up in Austria trying to get to the UK due to them having different passports and eventually makes it.

There were cliffhanger moments and moments where I could see similarities between my personality and Asha’s and I just loved how engrossed I became with the characters lives, trying to second guess what would happen next.

Neema cleverly covered dynamics in an Indian family as well as dynamics in any family going through something traumatic and I feel like so many people could resonate with different aspects of the book. I was so sad when I got to the last page. I can see this becoming a movie one day – truly fantastic and simply outstanding.

Kololo Hill comes out on 18 February and I highly recommend pre-ordering it. It is the best book I have read in years and I cannot believe that it is Neema’s debut novel. I honestly can’t wait for her to write more books as she has a way of words that had me entranced for hours.


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