Through the Leopard’s Gaze

Author: Njambi McGrath Book: Through the Leopard's Gaze Publisher: Jacaranda Books Price: £9.99 (You can purchase a copy here) Review by Barbara Grant

Through the Leopard’s Gaze is acclaimed comedian Njambi McGrath’s debut book. A memoir, it offers a stark account of McGrath’s traumatic childhood and journey into adulthood, from her birthplace (Kenya), to the leafy suburbs of north London where she now lives with her husband and two daughters.

McGrath reflects on her childhood, living at home with her father (Njogu), memories of her mother (Gakari, also affectionately known as Maitu) and grandmother (Herina Cucu). There are many childhood events. Though carefully tucked away, they still lurk on the fringes of consciousness, and are diligently avoided, apart from when they are fleetingly aroused while visiting the memories her beloved dead mother Gakari shared with her in childhood.

Through many flashbacks – each a story in itself – we learn more of Gakari’s family history, including her mum Herina Cucu, who chose to raise her family as a single mother, and some of the challenges it presented. McGrath tries to reconnect with family members to come to terms with some of the unexplained cruelty meted out by her father, and recounts family secrets that  shed a different light on an event that led to her leaving the family home.

McGrath’s memories offer a devastating picture of her father Njogu’s declining mental health and the havoc this can create within a family when mental illness isn’t recognised or goes untreated. Instead, her father’s actions are interpreted as a man asserting himself and managing his household during a period of colonial rule by the British.

Njogu and Gakari first met during their daily train ride, and what starts out as a promising future together is eroded during their marriage as Njogu’s behaviour becomes increasingly spiteful, malicious and towards his family, especially against the female family members. Gakari leaves the family home after being attacked by Njogu with a hammer. Before long, one by one, her daughters flee the family home.

We also learn about life under a colonial administration, and the often unreported brutality. Of men joining guerrilla groups to fight against the colonial invasion, and the women being herded off to refugee camps such as “The Rows”, where they endure a harsh and cruel existence, struggling to feed their children with food from an unyielding, arid landscape. It is unsurprising, then, that their own men treat their mothers, wives so cruelly, without remorse. Having learned such behaviour from their colonial masters.

McGrath finds her own mental state disrupted when she is forced to recall the night she is attacked by Njogu in her own home with such ferocity that like her older sisters, she flees into the night, aged 13, straight into the arms of “two shabbily dressed” strangers. A highly disturbing episode, she travels through the jungle with them, away from the only home she has known, to safety, never to return. The strangers escort her to the city to her mother.

The story picks up pace when the author’s younger brother Wainaina invites her to return to Kenya from London to attend his wedding. This simple act of brotherly love sets off a sequence of emotional and mental challenges as McGrath wrestles with her conscience, tries to face up to her past – and make peace with her father – in hope that lessons have been learned with the passage of time. But she wonders whether the past can every truly be set right?

Through the Leopard’s Gaze feels like an exhumation of buried feelings, hidden over decades. McGrath also places some of the blame for the family trauma at the door of colonialism. A time when men were both judge and jury in ‘kangaroo court’ where the voices of victims, chiefly women and children, were never heard.

This legacy is reflected in the ups and downs of her parents’ marriage. As Njogu’s business begins to fail, his behaviour becomes more unpredictable, taking his frustrations out on Maitu.

McGrath also tells a story of the women in her family, who survived against the odds. They support each other and soar, settling in modern societies in America and the UK. Meanwhile, the men remain stuck in self-constructed mental prisons, unable, or perhaps incapable, of owning and seeing the damaging legacy bequeathed to them by their colonial masters.

On the surface, Through the Leopard’s Gaze is about parental love and the unspoken harm mental distress, linked to colonialism, can have on a family. But a stronger, more pervasive, story is the power and resilience of strong independent black women, from McGrath’s grandmother Cucu Herina who choose to be a single parent at a time when the phrase wasn’t even coined, to Maitu who refused to tolerate her husband’s brutish behaviour because of the coveted title of “marriage”, to McGrath’s daughters (Inez and Neve) who represent the new African diaspora and the chance to start afresh.

I loved the way each memory was presented, and told as a complete short story, and how colonialism is dealt a sucker punch in the most subtle of ways.  An engrossing read, this book is page turner and a great choice for book club discussion.