Book review: Hopeless Kingdom, Kgshak Akec

From South Sudan to Australia, this award-winning novel tracks the journey of childhood, family and the migrant experience.

Kgshak Akec’s first novel, Hopeless Kingdom, was a joint winner of the 2021 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It is easy to understand why. Akec is a wonderful writer who writes simply but elegantly and builds complex edifices from simple foundations. Her prose is often gripping; an early scene involving two children jumping through a high-rise window was so unbearably suspenseful that I had to put the book down.  

The plot follows the migration of a Sudanese family to Australia via Egypt, told through the first-person narration of matriarch Taresai and her daughter Akita. In interviews, Akec has confirmed the story to be, at least in broad outline, autobiographical, but it is an act of great imaginative generosity to give so much of the narrative to Taresai instead of her own avatar. 

It is a rare bildungsroman that does not myopically focus on the protagonist. Put another way, Hopeless Kingdom is not just a bildungsroman, but a rich novel that also explores migration, childhood and family. 

One minor quibble I had was that there is very little stylistic differentiation between the voices of Taresai and Akita, nor does Akita’s voice change as she gets older. This doesn’t matter most of the time – Akec’s prose is, after all, excellent – but sometimes it does grate. 

For example, the six-year-old Akita describes looking at the stars early in the novel as follows: ‘I bask in their twinkling stillness, their reverberant silence’.  It is a beautiful sentence but its location in a passage ostensibly narrated by a six-year-old removed me from the moment and I became conscious of the mediating presence of the author between reader and character.

Elsewhere, Akec writes about childhood with beautiful clarity and insight. One moment that particularly struck me was the young Akita’s heartbreak in needing to leave Sydney and consciously distancing herself from it to ease the pain of separation: ‘[T]he only thing I can do is dim it. Stay inside most days and to pay less attention to it. To dim the colours, paint over it in grey, so that my numbered days here are bearable.’

Read: Book review: Desi Girl, Sarah Malik

Hopeless Kingdom has much to say about the migrant experience and the process of making a new home. But the novel is not just about that. It is also a generously imagined and deeply affecting portrait of family and growing into oneself.  

Hopeless Kingdom
by Kgshak Akec
Publisher: UWAP
Format: Paperback
Pages: 324 pages
Release Date: August 2022

RRP: $32.99

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.