Thoughts on Two African Novels

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I read both Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana and The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa more than a month ago, and they were both excellent. They deserve a little bit of book blog attention. Have you read them? What do you think of them?

Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana is a collection of related short stories about three sisters. Together, the stories create a poignant novel about what it means to be a woman growing up in Uganda, discovering her sexuality, and facing the unique conflict between African and American ways of life. I loved Baingana’s writing style. She wrote of being a young child with convincing accuracy; I loved how the young girl seemed so much like myself, as she sat reading Narnia and Enid Blyton. (Although I still haven’t read Ms Blyton, she’s certainly a favorite for many world wide, I believe). Given the familiar feel of that child’s way of life, it was fascinating to read, in a different story, of that same girl’s adjustment to living in the United States.

Another favorite story was the letter from one sister to a former lover. She wrote about AIDS virus and the way it impacts daily life in Uganda. Its emotional impact has left me thinking of the situation and the characters, even a month after reading it. With a wonderful writing style and stories that help one see the conflicts of young womanhood in Uganda, Tropical Fish is highly recommended. I’ll be looking for more by Doreen Baingana.

On the other hand, told from the perspective of a house gecko, The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa was wonderful and strange. The gecko is the reincarnation of a previous human, and as he tells the story of his house owner – an albino man – he also recalls his own past life. Agualusa made war-torn and recovering Angola seem incredibly familiar, and I found the story entertaining.

Because I read The Book of Chameleons “just for fun” during the Thanksgiving holidays, I don’t believe I understood the entire novel; it seems there is an underlying depth that I missed with my casual reading. Further, in reading the discussion questions at the end of the book, I discovered things that I hadn’t noticed. I should reread this at some point to get the full depth and, I suspect, the full humor. I also should reread Borges, since Agualusa’s style is reminiscent. I didn’t “get” the depth of Borges when I read him a few years ago either.

If you’ve read The Book of Chameleons, I’d be curious to know your thoughts. Did you make the connection to the gecko’s human identity? Did the novel, as a whole, make sense to you? I’m sorry to say that it didn’t all fit together for me, much as I enjoyed reading it.

I hope you have all had a happy Christmas holiday! May your new years’ celebration be fun too!

Reviewed on December 27, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve added Tropical Fish to my wishlist & think I may love it.

    I read The Book of Chameleons a few years ago & really enjoyed it but, like you, I don’t think I fully appreciated the subtext. It reminded me of Kafka’s “Metamorphoses” and Cortozar’s “Axolotyl”.

    • Claire (Paperback Reader), I didn’t “get” Metamorphoses either, but I also liked it mostly. I must have something for stories I don’t “get.” I do think you’d like Tropical Fish; I hope you enjoy.

  • I haven’t read either of these but they are definitely on my want list! I hope to read them at some point sooner rather than later. Glad to see you enjoyed both.

  • I’m intrigued by your description of Book of Chameleons, in particular the comparison to Borges, who I’m just (gradually) discovering. Both of these sound very worthwhile!

  • In fact in my book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage (, I correctly guessed that Doreen Baingana had been inpired in part, by Enid Blyton’s books as a child and that she was one of that generation of writers that grew up, having been inspired by writers like Enid Blyton, in writing books such as Tropical Fish that are more relevant to the Ugandan and for that matter, African situations.
    Stephen Isabirye

  • I’m glad that you liked “Tropical Fish”. I grew up in Ghana but I feel that Baingana captured what it felt like for those of us who grew up in the 70s in Africa. It’s truly a wonderful book. I have “The Book of Chameleons” on my TBR and I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the reviews.

    • Kinna, I look forward to reading more so I can get an even better picture of “growing up in the 70s in Africa” means. I have so much to learn about the world, and I love how world lit can help me along, there….

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