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Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye

In this quietly powerful and eminently readable novel, winner of the prestigious Sinclair Prize, Kenyan writer Marjorie Macgoye deftly interweaves the story of one young woman’s tumultuous coming of age with the history of a nation emerging from colonialism.

t the age of sixteen, Paulina leaves her small village in western Kenya to join her new husband, Martin, in the bustling city of Nairobi. It is 1956, and Kenya is in the final days of the “Emergency,” as the British seek to suppress violent anti-colonial revolts.

But Paulina knows little about, about city life, or about marriage, and Martin’s clumsy attempts to control her soon lead to a relationship filled with silences, misunderstandings, and unfulfilled expectations. Soon Paulina’s inability to bear a child effectively banishes her from the confines of traditional women’s roles. As her country at last moves toward independence, Paulina manages to achieve a kind of independence as well: She accepts a job that will require her to live separately from her husband, and she has an affair that leads to the birth of her first child. But Paulina’s hard-won contentment will be shattered when Kenya’s turbulent history intrudes into her private life, bringing with it tragedy—and a new test of her quiet courage and determination.

Paulina’s patient struggles for survival and identity are revealed through Marjorie Macgoye’s keen and sensitive vision—a vision which extends to embrace the whole of a nation and a people likewise struggling to find their way. As the Weekly Standard of Kenya notes, “Coming to Birth is a radical novel in firmly asserting our common humanity.”


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Editorial Review

A Book review by african-literature.net

Coming to Birth is a Novel by Majorie Oludhe Macgoye. The Author moved to Kenya in her early adulthood years, where she settled down into family after getting married to her African husband, D. G. W. Macgoye. She got intergrated into her extended Luo family, whose traditions are well highlighted within the novel. She has further used the novel to express her opinions and take on the developments that were taking place in Kenya as a young country (after achievement of independence). In her novel, the author has also focused on the plight of women in the largely patriarchal African society.


The novel opens with the Introduction of Martin Were to the audience. Martin is presented as a member of the educated middle working class in the Kenyan society and is in every way, a perfect depiction of young man with a successful life laid before him. Paulina Akelo, who is barely out of her teens, and wife to Martin Were, is also presented at the beginning of the novel. She is depicted as naive and ignorant to the ways of ‘the city’. The story-line of the novel follows the life of this young couple, who experience the ups and downs of marital life, with childlessness being the main negatively-impacting force on their marriage.

On the other hand, Martin, who was seen to be confident and successful at the beginning of the novel, is seen as slowly sinking into disillusionment and a state of hopelessness. This is partly caused by failed expectations which he had placed on the leadership of the country, and his inability to have a child with Paulina. Paulina experiences several miscarriages in her efforts to get a child by Martin. This causes a rift between the two, eventually leading to their separation. The failure to beget children between Paulina and Martin causes a state of hopelessness and bitterness. This is used by the author to express the general attitude of Kenyans as members of a young sovereign state, with regards to their failed expectations, as placed on the ruling government. Citizens in the country had great confidence on the government’s ability to deliver them from the depressive state of colonialism, but it seemed that a new pattern of Neo-colonialism had come into place.

In the course of the separation between Martin and Paulina, each of them engages in affairs with other partners. The reason for each party’s involvement in extra-marital affairs seems to be more or less the same. Martin is in search of a lady who can bear him children, while Paulina engages in an affair with Simon in her efforts to get a child. The result of Paulina’s affair with Simon is Martin Okeyo – a son born to her. Paulina finds joy in her son, who is unfortunately later killed in the course of protests in Kisumu city. The death of Paulina’s son is partly used by the author to represent the dampening of Kenya’s hopes of getting just governance after independence. The naming of the child by Paulina, where she gives it her former husbands name, signifies the memory that remains and the commitment she made to Martin Were. Later on in the story-line, Martin and Paulina are seen to come back together.

Paulina is soon expectant by Martin, and shares her joy with him, a sign of the ‘coming to Birth’ of their hope of getting a child together. However, Paulina proudly cautions Martin of being too overjoyed over the thought of having a child; this is born out of her past experiences. Kenya as a country, also experiences a renewed hope in its governance structure. This comes about with the shifting of power to a new government. Citizens in the country are optimistic, but do not let the joy they have cloud their judgement.


Major Characters; These are all round characters, and are seen to change with the development of the storyline. Their character is altered and changed as the events in the story impact on their personalities. From the novel, coming to Birth, major characters are; Paulina Akelo and Martin Were. The storyline revolves around the Major characters.

Minor Characters; This forms the largest group in any given character set and constitutes of all the characters used to enhance the development of the storyline. In the novel, minor characters include- Simon, Fauzia, Okello, Susana, Rachael and Mrs. Okelo.


The author has focused on several themes in her novel. These themes focus on both social and political way of life of the given society. Among the themes addressed by the author includes;


Disillusionment; this is enhanced by the likes of martin Were.

Marital Unfaithfulness; enhanced by characters such as Paulina, Martin.

Political betrayal; enhanced by the various reports on assassinations of key figures within the government.