This book isn’t quite a short story collection and it isn’t quite a novel. It’s a collection of short stories all about one character that moves forward linearly from her chidhood to her young womanhood. (Except for one story which is from the perspective of her best friend.) And while that might sound like a novel, each story does stand alone. We meet Loli on the day she and her family, immigrants from Congo, move into government housing in Scarborough and Loli meets her new best friend, Jolie. Jolie features in all of Loli’s adolescent stories and even feels like a shadow lingering in the stories of Loli as an adult, many of which focus on female relationships and friendships. Because this is where we first meet Loli, it’s impossible to say how much of her future is influenced by Jolie and what was laid in place previously. We are closely shown the vulnerability Loli faces as a woman, but especially as a young woman of colour growing up as the child of immigrant parents.
Loli navigates sexuality, education, depression, death, poverty, race. All the big questions and decisions of early adulthood, along with several that most of us never have to deal with quite so closely. Overall the stories are very readable but also very bleak, dealing with some pretty heavy content. Loli is an interesting but frustrating character. She’s so vulnerable that it’s easy to fear for her, yet Mutonji doesn’t paint her as a victim. Loli is smart and independent and the reader sees her solve her own problems. Not always in the way we might want her to but she is no sort of wilting flower waiting to be rescued. She grapples with her own power and abilities and the consequences of her decisions.
This is a promising first collection. While there are some bumps along the journey, Mutonji’s voice is strong and compelling.