Skip to Main Content

Things They Lost


    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.

    About The Reader

    Product Details

    • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (April 12, 2022)
    • Runtime: 11 hours and 15 minutes
    • ISBN13: 9781797139593

    Browse Related Books

    Resources and Downloads

    High Resolution Images