The Attic Child

Written by Lola Jaye
Review by Louise Tree

Inspired by a 19th-century photograph of Ndugu M’Hali, this novel quests through colonial genocide and exploitation to tell the fictional life of an African boy.

In 1903, the Belgian colonial regime is still at its most brutal. Nine-year-old Dikembe lives in the paradisal domestic world of his mother, until soldiers murder his father. Dikembe’s mother saves him by giving him to Sir Richard Babbington, a British explorer, who transports him to an England of automobiles and electric lights. He is renamed Celestine and lives in homesick luxury until Babbington’s death. The explorer’s heirs inherit both the house and Celestine/Dikembe, and he is consigned to a dark, unfurnished attic as an unpaid servant. There, he hides clues to his life.

In 1993, Lowra is living alone in a Croydon flat, in recovery from being kept in an attic when she was a child. When Lowra inherits her old family home, she ventures into this epicentre of both characters’ traumatic pasts. She reclaims Dikembe’s belongings which she had found as a child under the floorboards: a bone necklace, a doll, strange writing on scraps of paper and a message on the wall. These propel her to discover the real Dikembe, and she slowly comes to realise that his history is intertwined with her own.

The critical plot point where these stories dovetail is well managed. The opening and final chapters are the most persuasive, as is the moment of Lowra’s encounter with a photograph of Dikembe. In between, the story lacks pace and emotional range. The casual style of the writing is a distraction. Domestic service and the practice of historians are under-researched. That said, this story is nevertheless an important reminder of the Black lives which have been taken.