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BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

Image Description: The cover of The Attic Child features a child’s head in profile against an orange backdrop. Inside the image is a house, in shades of purple, with the profile of another child in the attic window. Around the neck of the central child is a bone necklace.

Two children trapped in the same attic, almost a century apart, bound by a shared secret.

Early 1900s London: Taken from his homeland, twelve-year-old Celestine spends most of the time locked away in the attic of a large house by the sea. The only time Celestine isn’t bound by confines of the small space is when he is acting as an unpaid servant to English explorer Sir Richard Babbington, As the years pass, he desperately clings on to memories of his family in Africa, even as he struggles to remember his mother’s face, and sometimes his real name . . .

1974: Lowra, a young orphan girl born into wealth and privilege whose fortunes have now changed, finds herself trapped in the same attic. Searching for a ray of light in the darkness of the attic, Lowra finds under the floorboards an old-fashioned pen, a porcelain doll, a beaded necklace, and a message carved on the wall, written in an unidentifiable language. Providing comfort for her when all hope is lost, these clues will lead her to uncover the secrets of the attic.

Although I’ve read a number of novels that explore the varied legacies of Britain’s more recent history, I’m very aware that large gaps remain in my knowledge of my country’s colonial past. Based upon photographs of Ndugu M’Hali – a young African boy taken from his homeland against his will to be a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley – Lola Jaye’s The Attic Child uses the duel narratives of Dikembe and Lowra to tell a remarkable and heart-rending story of trauma and displacement that illuminates an oft-overlooked legacy of colonialism.

Alternating between the early 1900s and the mid-1990s, The Attic Child follows the interconnected stories of Dikembe – renamed Celestine by his British ‘benefactor’, Sir Richard Babbington – and Lowra, a young woman who has come into an unexpected – and unwanted – inheritance following the death of her estranged stepmother. What unites them is a house: 109 Ranklin Road. Or, more specifically, the attic room of 109 Ranklin Road where, under different but equally traumatic circumstances, Lowra and Dikembe find themselves spending much of their time.

Uncovering the connections between these two characters takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey across both continents and time, moving from the Belgium occupation of the so-called ‘Congo Free State’ (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – and the ruthless exploitation of native peoples that followed – to the museums of contemporary Britain: and to the legacies of occupation and mistreatment that the objects within them all-too-frequently represent.

Saying any more about the plot of The Attic Child would be to spoil the gradual unfolding of the tangled connections that link Dikembe and Lowra however, amidst what is often a challenging and brutal tale of survival and loss, Lola Jaye has also managed to weave a remarkable story of hope. Though The Attic Child is unflinching in its depictions of what its protagonists have to endure (content warnings for death of a parent, death of siblings, murder, child loss, child abuse, sexual abuse, racial stereotyping/slurs, and racism), it is also a powerful story of identity, belonging, love, and family.

Combining a deeply emotive story with evocative descriptions of time and place, The Attic Child is a powerful read that demands the attention of its reader. I was fascinated – and, due to the nature of the experiences Dikembe undergoes, also horrified – to learn that Dikembe is inspired by a real child, Ndugu M’Hali, who became a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The novel also illuminates a grim period of Congolese history by examining the brutality of life under the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Finally, the book speaks powerfully to current debates about the commemoration and interpretation of the national past and, in particular, the colonial and imperial past.

As you can probably tell, The Attic Child is packing a lot into its narrative and, even at 464 pages, there were times – especially towards the end of the book – where I felt as if I wanted a little more detail. On occasion, the narrative jumps several months or even years, before moving into sections where events are described in more detail and slowly. This meant that, for me, the pacing was a little uneven although the narrative held my interest in spite of this and, despite it being a relatively chunky book, I finished The Attic Child in just over a week.

An unflinching and emotive read, The Attic Child is a movingly told and emotive story about the personal legacies of colonialism. Set against a fascinating backdrop and with two interesting lead characters, the novel is sure to appeal to fans dual-narrative historical fiction as well as to anyone interested in knowing more about Britain’s hidden histories and colonial connections.

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye is published by Pan Macmillan and is available to purchase now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18th May 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

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