Dear Philomena by Mugabi Byenkya

Dear Philomena

Genre Nonfiction.

Blurb “An extraordinary debut novel from the young Ugandan/Rwandan/Nigerian, Dear Philomena, is the story of two strokes, one boy, one girl and a whole lot of magical realism. July 1991, Leocardia Byenkya underwent an ultrasound that informed her to expect a baby girl. She chose the name Philomena. January 16 1992, her baby was born as a boy. Filled with shock and surprise, Leocardia named her baby boy Mugabi.

December 2014, Mugabi suffered from two strokes within a week of each other. Mugabi was 22 years old. ‘Dear Philomena,’ is a series of thoughts and conversations between Mugabi and Philomena (the girl he was supposed to be) about the year he was supposed to die but somehow lived through.”

Themes Loss, Friendship, Family, Mental health and Illness.

Editing Mostly well edited, a few errors.

What worked? Mo is away on holiday this week so I’m reviewing this book alone. Which means I can write whatever I like and have no one looking over my shoulder. 🙂

Dear Philomena opens with a glossary and considering how I go on about glossaries being preferable to continuous explanations which interrupt the flow of narration, this was a plus. I read the first few pages of the book and I was confused. It’s not clear who Philomena is initially and because the book starts with her, you want to know who she is. Well, the blurb came to the rescue, should have read that first… duh!

The book is a series of “conversations” between Mugabi, the author and Philomena, the girl he was meant to be (his mother was told she would have a girl when she was pregnant with him). Mugabi intersperses these conversations with social media posts and this shows how much of a role social media plays in the lives of many young people. This format makes the narration of Mugabi’s thoughts more engaging as it comes across as conversations rather than musings. It is chronicled with dates so it also reads like diary entries but there are also short diary entries introduced later on in the book.

The conversations start out as ordinary, similar to many conversations friends have but by mid-January, Mugabi becomes more honest with Philomena telling her his deepest fears and daily struggles with health issues, depression, suicidal thoughts and voices telling him to self-harm. However, these may have been side effects from anti-seizure medication prescribed by his neurologist.

I thought it was interesting that Philomena was a trainee nurse. Was Mugabi projecting his mother onto Philomena? And if so, why… considering his mother was still alive and it was his father who had passed away. Perhaps, these conversations took place between Mugabi and his mother and he only changed bits to make her sound younger.

Dear Philomena touches on important issues to do with illness, empathy, and the support of family and friends. I particularly liked the points raised on mental illness which will be familiar to most Africans. It’s a layered book and requires deep thoughts about the significance of all that is said and unsaid in the book. It’s an honest and gut wrenching account by the author of a really dark period in his life.

Although the book deals with serious health issues; physical and mental, it is a digestible read, contrary to what I expected. I think the conversation format with the social media posts, diary entries and reference to music videos on YouTube contributes to this. However, it’s an unusual read – closest I could think of is the collection of poetry, Twirling in the Flames. Because of the weight of the issues in the book, it may not appeal to everyone.

Dear Philomena is Mugabi’s debut book.

What didn’t work? The book left me with questions at the end. One of these questions was listed in the discussion points at the end of the book; significant portions of conversations between Mugabi and Philomena are not recorded and I don’t know why.

Despite one’s empathy for Mugabi and how he’s taken care to mix up the narration so it’s more engaging, reading his memoir does get monotonous sometimes.

Page numbers 220.

Publisher Discovery Diversity Publishing.

Damage $7.16 on Amazon.

Rating 7/10.

Dear Philomena is available on Amazon.

Many thanks to Mugabi for sending us a copy of his book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Dear Philomena? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Categories: Nonfiction

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