Skip to Main Content

About The Book

Named a Most Anticipated Book by Vogue and Vulture

“Alternately whimsical, sweet, and dark,” this astonishing debut novel about a lonely girl waiting for her mother “brim[s] with uncompromisingly African magical realism” (The New York Times).

Ayosa is a wandering spirit—joyous, exuberant, filled to the brim with longing. Her only companions in her grandmother’s crumbling house are as lonely as Ayosa herself: the ghostly Fatumas, whose eyes are the size of bay windows, who teach her to dance and wail at the death news; the Jolly-Annas, cruel birds who cover their solitude with spiteful laughter; the milkman, who never greets Ayosa and whose milk tastes of mud; and Sindano, the kind owner of a café no one ever visits. Unexpectedly, miraculously, one day Ayosa finds a friend. Yet she is always fixed on her beautiful mama, Nabumbo Promise: a mysterious and aloof photographer, she comes and goes as she pleases, with no apology or warning.

Set at the intersection of the spirit world and the human one, Things They Lost sets out a rich and magical vision of “girlhood as a time of complexity, laced with unparalleled creativity and expansion” (Vogue). Heartbreaking, elegant, and written in “giddily exuberant prose” (Financial Times), it’s a story about connection, coming-of-age, and the dizzying dualities of love at its most intoxicating and all-encompassing.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Okwiri Odour’s Things They Lost includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Ayosa is a wandering spirit—joyous, exuberant, filled to the brim with longing. Alone in her grandmother’s crumbling house at the edge of a small village, her only companions are the ghosts in the attic and the mocking, spiteful jolly annas in the garden. One day, unexpectedly, miraculously, Ayosa finds a friend. But even Mbiu can’t distract Ayosa from the one person she misses most in the world: her mother, Nabumbo Promise, a mysterious and aloof photographer who comes and goes as she pleases, with no apology or warning.

As Mbiu introduces her to the life of the village, Ayosa calls up memories of her mama’s life and the lives of the women who came before her—three generations of isolated women and their daughters, all the subject of frequent gossip by the townspeople—and their complicated legacy, which now belongs to twelve-year-old Ayosa. Torn between her new friends and her mama, Ayosa is forced to reckon with what it means to be loved, and how she might start to make her own way in life. Set at the intersection of the spirit world and the human one, Things They Lost unfurls the dizzying dualities of love at its most intoxicating.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Oduor opens the novel with Epitaph Day, a day of mourning and of celebration in honor of the dead in Mapeli Town. Why do you think Oduor chose to begin the story with this scene? What role do death and remembering the dead play in the novel?

2. When we meet Ayosa, she is alone in Manor Mabel Brown, “a resting ground for weary shadows.” Later, in Chapter 2, the milkman comes to the manor and thinks to himself, “From that distance, he could not tell if Ayosa was really a girl or if she was a spirit child.” What do you think of Ayosa’s relationship to the world of spirits? In your opinion, is she a girl or a spirit child?

3. In the beginning of the novel, we learn a history of Mapeli Town, which is later revealed to be a fiction. What is the first story we hear, and what is the truth Nabumbo tells Ayosa in Chapter 7? What do you make of the difference between these stories?

4. In a burst of fury, Mabel Brown shoots fifteen-year-old Dickson Were dead. What are the aftereffects of this incident? What other acts of violence does Mabel commit against the town and its residents, and how are her decedents made to cope with that legacy?

5. Consider the wraiths, who repeatedly attempt to trick various characters throughout the novel. What do we learn about their purpose in the town? In a town full of spirits, what differentiates the wraiths from kinder entities, like the Fatumas?

6. When Nabumbo and Rosette’s father meets them for the first time, Nabumbo imagines he looks at them “as though trying to determine which one of the two was the original and which was the copy.” Why might Nabumbo have been worried about this? Name a few other examples of times copies, or imposters, factor in throughout the novel.

7. When Ayosa was a “wriggling thing,” she heard her mother pleading “please-please-please-I-need-you” and she dropped out of the sky to become Nabumbo Promise’s daughter. In your opinion, which of the Brown girls chose the other? How does Ayosa’s role in the decision complicate their mother-daughter relationship?

8. Return to Ms. Temperance’s poems on pages 76 and 152, and reread them in light of the big revelation about her identity. How, if at all, does knowing the truth about her affect your reading of her poetry? What do you make of Ms. Temperance’s role in the town? In her family?

9. On page 255, after Ayosa confesses to remembering much of Nabumbo Promise’s life from before Ayosa’s own birth, Nabumbo Promise says to her, “Such a curiosity you are! You claim to remember. To re-member, just like a photograph.” What do Ayosa’s memories and Nabumbo Promise’s photography have in common? Later, Nabumbo asks Ayosa, “Do you realize how violent your re-membering is, Ayosa?” What does she mean? Do you find Ayosa’s re-membering to be violent? What about Nabumbo’s photography?

10. Consider the events of the final chapter in the book. What has become of Nabumbo Promise and Ayosa’s relationship with each other? How do you understand Nabumbo’s decision to pull Ayosa into the river with her?

11. Remember that in Chapter 1, on Epitaph Day, “the townspeople thought of all the ones they had ever lost.” In a book about memory, legacy, and love, why do you think the author might have chosen to title the book as she did?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. For further reading in the magical realism genre, consider the following:

White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

2. From Sindano’s doughnuts to Ayosa’s Christmas dinner, characters throughout the novel use food to express love, care, and feelings of friendship. Hold a potluck with your reading group and discuss the book over a shared meal.

3. Read Okwiri Oduor’s short story “Mbiu Dash” (2021), published by Granta:

About The Author

Photograph by Chelsea Bieker

Okwiri Oduor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her short story “My Father’s Head” won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in GrantaThe New InquiryKwani, and elsewhere. She has been a fellow at MacDowell and Art Omi and a visiting writer at the Lannan Center. Oduor has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She currently lives in Germany.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (April 12, 2022)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982102593

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Astonishing ... Oduor has produced page after page of gorgeous, elegiac prose. Dense and rich as a black Christmas cake and alternately whimsical, sweet and dark, Things They Lost is a complex work, brimming with uncompromisingly African magical realism."
New York Times Book Review

"In giddily exuberant prose, Oduor gradually reveals a terrifying story of generations of maternal abuse and dysfunction."
Financial Times

"[A] story that injects the fantastic into the mystery of Kenya’s disappearing girls ... [Things They Lost] will appeal to any reader who has survived or wants to understand girlhood as a time of complexity, laced with unparalleled creativity and expansion."

"In this enchanting debut novel, Kenyan-born writer Oduor spins the magical tale of lonely young Ayosa ... Caine Prize winner Oduor explores generational abuse and violence with a gentle touch, managing to elicit compassion rather than judgment for these withholding mothers and daughters. From the novel’s dazzling first sentence to its gratifying conclusion, readers will be mesmerized by Oduor’s linguistic skills. Highly recommended."
Library Journal, STARRED review

"An extraordinary tale about love, longing, and the bond between mothers and daughters."
Vogue, 25 Books by Black Authors We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022

"Oduor renders this fantastical world so tangibly it almost leaps off the page—a feat aided by her stunning language ... this novel is lively and original; it is a captivating journey from start to finish. A joy to read."
Kirkus, STARRED review

"The writing is mesmeric, at times as warm and rhythmic as a lullaby, and filled with gentle, keen observations of the natural world. A book with a big heart."
New Internationalist

"Drenched in magic and mystery, this debut novel explores complicated mother/daughter relationships and the power of friendship."
Apartment Therapy

"With this debut novel, Okwiri Oduor—winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing—leaves no room to doubt the extent of her talents and imagination. It’s rich, evocative, and irresistible, full of beguiling magic and mystery."
Bitch Media

"Kaleidoscopic in depth and breadth, this extraordinary debut is a magical and evocative story of mothers and daughters, longing and love."
Ms. Magazine

"An elegant, enchanting coming-of-age story."
Philadelphia Inquirer

''A wondrous newborn — mewling, dewy, twinkling, gurgling a tale steeped in the acrid surrealism of childhood, populated by wicked wraiths and held together by the vicious spell mothers can cast on their daughters.''
—Leila Aboulela, author of Bird Summons and Elsewhere, Home

"A narrative so profound, its humour shining so bright, that you'd think the author had written hundreds of books to have mastered the art of perpetual storytelling. A stunning debut!"
—Onyeka Nwelue, author of The Strangers of Braamfontein

"Otherworldly, unconventional, delectably surreal. One of the most magical and exhilarating introductions to a main character. Okwiri has taken language, sculpted something new and splendid out of it to deliver to the world. An array of some of the most memorable ‘in-between-worlds’ characters enter the literary world from Mapeli Town with aplomb. What a debut! What a gift!"
—Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, author of Dust and The Dragonfly Sea

“A coming-of-age tale that deftly refuses to play magic realism straight, Okwiri Oduor’s Things they Lost blends the phantasmagoria of Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard with the deadpan, wry humour of Bolaño. A welcome new Kenyan voice.”
—Olufemi Terry, author of "Stickfighting Days" and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images