The Library of the Unwritten

(And other novels from Hell’s Library) by A.J. Hackwith

Book covers of The Library of the Unwritten, The Archive of the Forgotten, and The God of Lost Words, next to a Halloween decoration of a stack of books with a skull on top and a bottle that says Love Potions next to it.

I love novels about books and reading, so The Library of the Unwritten grabbed my attention while I wandered through the bookstore.  When I read the subtitle “A novel from Hell’s Library,” my excitement grew, and when I read the back of the book, I was hooked.  The premise is there is a library, located in Hell, but not a part of Hell, filled with humanity’s unwritten books.  Every story started but never finished, each idea mulled but never realized, appears in the leather-bound books of the Library of the Unwritten.

Every library needs a librarian, of course, and the current librarian is a condemned soul named Claire, who died roughly thirty years prior and found herself an apprentice to the former Librarian.  After he disappeared, she took the mantel of Librarian, and with her assistant, a Muse named Brevity, Claire makes sure the Library remains safe from the demons surrounding it and perhaps more importantly, that the books remain asleep. 

For the unwritten desperately want their stories told.  Occasionally, a book will manifest as a character and try to make its way back to Earth and its author.  It’s the librarian’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.  There are a few exceptions: the Damsel Wing is a fun addition. The damsels originated as ladies whose only purpose in their (unfinished) story was to serve as the hero’s prize. Fed up with their lack of characterization and opportunity to grow within their story, and with no desire to meet the hacks who tried to write them, the Librarians allow them to live outside their books in their own section of the Library. 

But overall, a character must return to its book.  As our story opens, a hero-type character made a break from the Library and is back among the living.  Claire, Brevity, and Leto, a fairly new demon, are on the hunt.  Unbeknownst to them, a fallen angel named Ramiel is on a mission from Heaven, also hunting for pages from a book. 

As much as I would love to go into detail about all these characters and their adventures, I want you to be able to experience it all for yourself.  This is a fantastic world and I love how Hackwith pulls it all together.  Claire & Co. travel to other realms, including Valhalla, that have their own wings of the Library.  All the way through, circumstances force them to examine who they are and who they want to become.  When Library of the Unwritten ended, I hated to say goodbye to those characters and that world.

Thankfully, there are two more books: The Archive of the Forgotten and The God of Lost Words.  I won’t say much about them, since I don’t want to spoil anything that happens in the first book.  Both are great stories and continue to expand the realms and the characters’ development. 

The Archive of the Forgotten has a lot of story lines dealing with the immediate fallout from the previous book.  It’s well done, but it has a thing that I struggle with a lot in stories – the separation of characters.  It makes sense – everyone needs growth and sometimes our traumas isolate us from those we care about and who care about us.  But it can be hard to watch (or read).  The God of the Lost, meanwhile, left me in tears by the end, which surprised me.  It was such a beautiful ode to reading, writing, and creating that I found myself overwhelmed and filled with love.

Hackwith’s conception of the afterlife is fascinating.  Parts of it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, shows like Supernatural, and the movie Constantine.  But those are just some of the ingredients that bring it all together.  Hackwith creates a fascinating world with its own philosophies and theologies. As mention earlier, there are various realms reflecting other belief systems.  Even Christianity’s Heaven and Hell exist, with some changes.  Hell in this version is only for those who condemn themselves to it.  For only a second, I thought that wouldn’t be a terrible system, thinking of how few people would want to be in Hell.  Then I realized that such a concept would mean a Heaven filled with the narcissistic egoists who believe they are flawless and continually the victim, while those who struggled to do the right thing would hold themselves to an impossible standard and thus condemn themselves unjustly for eternity. 

But Heaven poses a dilemma I’ve noticed in a lot of modern stories.  If we include angels and demons, Heaven and Hell, in a story, there’s the problem of God.  It seems easy for us to accept the idea of Satan to be real and active in human affairs; devils walking among us would explain so much.  But a force of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent good?  If such a god exists, why wouldn’t they help us?  If angels are around, why don’t they ever seem to be winning? Instead of Heaven being paradise, we seem better able to imagine it as, at best, a sterile neutrality, burdened with bureaucracy and an absent Deity. 

Sure, it makes sense that we can’t have such an all-powerful being around in our art, able to end all conflict in the blink of an eye – there isn’t much of a story there.  But when we look at earlier times, there didn’t seem to be a problem with imagining such divinity and still having the world be a fairly miserable place. 

Has our sense of justice and fairness changed? If we create God in our image, have we reached a point where we realize that such a thing could not exist and the world continue as it does?  Heaven as a bureaucracy – something started with reasons and order and processes for a defined purpose, but now just continuing via inertia, without the spark or soul to give it true life or meaning.  Perhaps, however, the right soul could make the needed changes. 

These were just some of the thoughts Library of the Unwritten and the rest of Hell’s Library’s novels inspired. At the end, it once again made me so incredibly grateful for all the authors out there, all the readers, and all the libraries and librarians, wherever they may be.  

Find it here

A Girl is a Body of Water

by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Promise me you will pass on the story of the first woman – in whatever form you wish.  It was given to me by women in captivity.  They lived an awful state of migration, my grandmothers.  Telling origin stories was their act of resistance.  I only added on a bit here and a bit there.  Stories are critical, Kirabo,”she added thoughtfully.  “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

Stories and women are deeply entwined themes in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water.  Throughout the novel, we follow Kirabo, who is a twelve-year-old girl at the beginning, as she comes of age during Idi Amin’s dictatorial regime in Uganda during the 1970s.  Kirabo is the storyteller of her family, but she is also desperately searching for her mother and her mother’s story. 

Kirabo lives with her grandparents and a slew of aunts, uncles, and cousins on her grandfather’s farm.  She has no idea who her mother is and her father, whom she calls by his first name, Tom, only periodically comes around to visit her before heading back to the city. Her grandfather is wealthy and well-respected landowner in their village. Kirabo’s family surrounds her with love.  Yet she longs to learn about her mother, about whom no one will speak. This doesn’t help her control what she calls her “second self,” a mischievous spirit that lives within her and periodically takes over her body, causing her to fly and roam without really remembering what happened. 

Kirabo sneaks off to visit Nsuuta, a blind woman who lives at the edge of town, anxious to rid herself of this curse.  It must be done in secret, for there is some kind of unspoken history between Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother.  Kirabo doesn’t know what transpired between the two, but she knows her grandmother wouldn’t approve of Kirabo going to Nsuuta.  Though Kirabo hates to disappoint or betray her grandmother, she is desperate for answers. Nsuuta seems to be the only one willing to give them.

Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her second self is really a special gift, a remnant of what she calls the “original state” of women, before men shrank them and began to control them.  Kirabo has a gift, not a curse, and she should hold on to it and treasure it. But Kirabo has other plans for her future.

Throughout the story, we meet all sorts and experience a wide range of experiences with Kirabo as she learns to navigate what it means to be a woman.  She learns about mwenkanonkano, a Uganda-rooted feminism while trying to watch out for kweluma. Nsuuta explained kweluma as:

            “when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite.  It is a form of relief.  If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.”

Oppression is not limited to sex and gender.  At one point, the story jumps back in time to Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother’s childhood and young adulthood.  They navigated similar issues as Kirabo, but with British colonialism in the background, chipping away at Uganda’s “original self.”

Makumbi’s writing is beautiful.  There were so many passages where a particular paragraph or sentence jumped out at me.  I should also mention that there are a number of phrases and sentences written in Luganda without translation.  By and large, you can figure out what’s going on from context clues, or if you have a phone/computer handy, you can look it up.  I personally enjoy having non-English language bits reflecting the author’s background or the setting of the book, but I know that’s sometimes frustrating.  I also discovered, once I finished the book, that there’s a cast of characters at the end, which might have been helpful in a few places. 

A Girl is a Body of Water also gave some insights into Ugandan history, about which I know very little.  At one point, Kirabo’s aunt complains about Amin’s dictates on how women dress.  Later, Kirabo lives through the uprising that ousts the dictator.  Some of the parts about colonization makes you realize just how bizarre things are that we Westerners take for granted.  There’s a great segment about time and the ridiculousness of starting the day in the middle of the night, rather than at sunrise, or gauging months and seasons by an arbitrary calendar, rather than following the natural world.  At the same time, Kirabo and her boyfriend also get into debates about whether certain traditions regarding women’s sexuality should be extolled for increasing women’s pleasure or thrown out as a form of genital mutilation.  

Overall, I really enjoyed A Girl is a Body of Water.  The only thing that clanged for me was Kirabo’s dilemma with her second self. I thought it would take up the entire novel and I was kind of surprised by its resolution.  The overarching themes of the importance of story, of understanding others, and trying to understand ourselves, wrapped in beautiful language and touches of humor, however, make this an outstanding book. 

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