An Image in a Mirror

Nyakale is separated from her twin, Achen, at birth. She is shipped off to her aunt, Aunty Mercy, and uncle in Johannesburg by her mother. They raise her as their own daughter. Her mother claims that “I wanted to give you not an empty life, but a life full of things I cannot even imagine. There it would be better, you would be better”. But is this the real reason?

An Image in a Mirror is a story of pain and loss, of how women pretend to have moved on when in reality they are stewing in and consumed by pain. As the title aptly sums it up, the image in the mirror is often times not the women presented to the world. The realities buried deep in the chambers of the heart and expressed in tears under the blankets, are a far cry from the smiles flashed freely during the day. If you care to look a bit closer, the “eyes expose issues in (their) hearts.”

In a storyline that smoothly flows between Uganda and South Africa, Ogwang succeeds in presenting us with parallel realities, “life (of) constant oscillation between good and bad, hope and despair”. Achen and Nyakale are identical twins yet their lives could not be more different. Nyakale lives in the leafy suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg, whilst Achen lives in poverty in rural Uganda. In each chapter Ogwang allows Nyakale and Achen to tell their own stories. The individuality of their voices reinforces their intertwined yet parallel lives. What brings their otherwise divergent stories together is their shared awareness and concern of the deep pain that their mother harbours.

Achen eloquently articulates the pervasive message that underlines this book when she says:

“I would never have thought that the beauty of being a woman, these gender roles they speak of would one day become something I detest. It is a beautiful thing, but also a hard thing, to be a woman here. Yes, you can also have a voice, but at times you’ll be expected to hide that voice in a box and not let it out”.

Ogwang questions the socialisation of women whose “upbringing…closely resembles a marriage readiness academy, with being wed the goal every girl must continuously aspire to.” But she highlights that it is wifehood and motherhood that define women. This expectation cuts across class and geography. Although educated and well-off, for Aunt Mercy motherhood is crucial. And Aunt Mercy’s husband does not miss a moment to remind Nyakale what is expected of a good wife. On the other hand, Ogwang shows how being widowed (loosing wifehood) leaves women destitute and stripped of their land rights. She also highlights entrenched behaviours of domestic violence, as Achen’s young boyfriend shares his anxieties about his mother: “I am worried that Mama will never be free. You know what the women here endure.”

Ogwang shines a spotlight on another reality that parents hardly pay attention to.  Through her child characters she shows that children are a lot more perceptive than parents care to know. As such no one takes the time to explain decisions and actions that impact them. This brings confusion, anxiety and resentment. Children end up relying on each other in trying to make sense of what is happening around them. Nobody ever explained to Achen and Nyakale why they were separated at birth. When Nyakale’s friend’s (Aisha) sister is sick and subsequently dies, no one explains anything to her. She just sees her father “ripping apart” and her mother drowning her anguish in alcohol. Aisha turns to a helpless Nyakale, who needless to say, offers no answers. In the end these children enter adulthood already traumatised, wounded and burdened.

As I put down An Image in a Mirror I was left somewhat paralysed by the burden of patriarchy and its impact on women and children. Ogwang’s characters just rub in the depth of the pain that women live with. I was particularly struck by the hollowness and resentment that children (male and female) live with. It is not obvious to me that men have any appreciation of what’s going on.

In this debutant novel Ogwang establishes herself as a queen of prose. She grips the reader with her distinctly imaginative phrases, like:

“Her mouth is like an open tap”

“Speaking but saying nothing”

“We speak these days, but we no longer really talk”

“She seems like a woman who has crept inward”.

I recommend An Image in a Mirror to young women and to parents (especially mothers) who are raising daughters. It is an easy yet intriguing read.