Category Archives: Book reviews

The Spider King’s Daughter, its author, John Updike and me (A review)

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The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo

Faber and Faber (2012)

304 pages

Rating: 3/5

Besides being one of only three people to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once, John Updike is also famous for the rules of literary criticism that he published in 1975. And it is with his wise counsel in mind that I attempt the review, below, of Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter.

Trying to understand what the author wished to do and not blaming her for not achieving what she did not attempt

I first chanced upon this book, in the hands of a teenage boy on an underground train; he appeared to be reading it with much enjoyment.  As the writer began writing it when she was only 17, I had concluded that this was a novel for young adults. My conclusion was backed by further evidence such as the bold red title font and the colourfully illustrated cover. But nothing on the book info page on the website of its publisher, Faber and Faber, or on Amazon distinguished it as such. I therefore did not approach it as young adult fiction, and quite expected – at my grand old age – to enjoy it as much as the boy furiously turning pages beside me on the train.

I did. Sometimes.

Giving her enough direct quotes so you can form your own impression

Along with the obvious reason – being a Nigerian literature fiend – for my attraction to this book, it was its blurb, a quote from the book, which made me spare it attention among the pile of books ascending to several precarious storeys atop my wardrobe. The blurb read: “I looked at her face while she was bringing out her wallet…she passed me a two hundred naira note with a smile that showed perfect teeth. It would have been so easy to sprint off with her money. I gave her the change before placing the ice-cream on her palm. Someone else would have to show her that the world was not filled with honest hawkers and unicorns.”

This quote pretty much set the scene for the surprise readers get when they realise that the trusting adolescent described above, Abike Johnson, is an anti-hero of sorts, rather than the stereotypical, cosseted rich girl. And that perhaps the “honest hawker” might be the one who has yet to outgrow his belief in unicorns.

Confirming my description of the book with a quotation rather than proceeding by a fuzzy prexis

This book is the combined diary of two young people, set tidily apart with different fonts.  Although Chibundu recounts the same experiences from both viewpoints, she introduces enough discrepancies in their perception and narration of shared events that rarely does it seem that one is being told the same thing twice. Quite the opposite in fact, she uses their disconnected understanding as a tool to progress the plot.

Lists in literature are my new thing, especially since reading the opening of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of An Ending. Chibundu deploys it in The Spider King’s… almost as capably as Barnes: Every morning I wake up and I know exactly what to do. 1) Bathe, 2) Make Sure Joke does the same, 3) Eat Breakfast, 4) Make sure Joke does the same, 5) Ditto my mother, 6) Take Joke to school, 7) Leave school for work, 8) Make sure Joke never does the same.

The individuality of her expressions and the deft deployment of metaphors are thrilling as well. See this: “We had come to Yaba market the home of cheap wooden stalls bowed under the weight of the average Nigerian’s need to look Western for as Eastern a price as possible”, and this: “I offered the pack by reflex… My father taught us to always act like waiters, or hosts, as he preferred to say. He was an effacing man, always scanning the room to look for someone to serve. ‘Offer your seat, offer your drink, offer your mints.’”.

Chibundu works words with the dexterity of a more experienced author. Writers, they say, acquire style as they mature, but reading Chibundu gives me the sense that it is also possible to just have it waiting to be poured into a debut effort. The thought of the kind of genius this writer might have to offer in a few years – if indeed writers do grow into their styles – fills me with excitement.

Chibundu Onuzo, author of the book. Photo: Bill Knight

Going easy on the plot summary

So what’s the story of The Spider King’s Daughter? It’s a bit of that old story of  how rich girl meets poor boy, only like most, it is infused with its own brand of manipulation, scores that need settling, and reasons why poor boy will never be good enough for rich girl.

Sadly, it is in plot and characterisation that Chibundu exhibits the deficiency that marks her as a greenhorn, creating a story that torpedoes just when it should be building up. If I were Chibundu’s editor, I’d lose most of the last hundred pages or so – right from where Runner G reads his father’s letter; and I’d throw Mr T into that heap of discards, too, he really is too confused and confusing to be a credible character: we never find out if his daughter died aged two or six, which insurance company he worked for, if any, nor can we make any sense of his fantastic recollections of an encounter with a prophet.

Chibundu does a wonderful job of developing the complexity of her characters until she abruptly does an about face and begins to expend a lot of effort to destroy all that she has achieved up to this point. Runner G has developed a sense of pride in his situation, and begun to lose the defensiveness that had hitherto shadowed it. Abike finally sees how the less fortunate half lives, and begins to form an empathy for not just Runner G and his family, but other people – indifference is turning to interest and then progressing towards understanding. We are bating our breath for the massive confrontation of old ideals with this newly achieved maturity when Chibundu, perhaps not perceptive enough of this growth she’s spun, dashes our expectations in one ill-executed denouement.

Making sure that my judging the book deficient (in plot) isn’t my own failing as a reader/reviewer rather than Chibundu’s

While this book might be satisfactory for the young adult (that phrase again!) there are several things that could have been done more skilfully. They are:

Unexplained accusations – Abike is accused of turning her father against her half siblings and even her own mother, “You cannot blame her mother, she’s as much a victim as the rest of us”. But we are never told how Abike finagles her way into her father’s good graces and manages to oust everyone else. We need to see how this slip of a girl achieves, at seventeen, this most conniving of feats, and a few rounds of ‘frustration’, and smart-mouthing don’t show it sufficiently.

Flawed resolution – In order not to give this one away, I have to content myself with saying only that that scene that combines the excitement of strangulation, gun totting, and stiletto head-nailing is the weakest in the whole book

Plausibility – There was no emotional truth in two responsible adults being complicit in the plans of a teenager to carry out a murder, and that belated withdrawal of Aunty Precious comes a little too late to stem the damage.

Coincidences – Chibundu should steer away from the coincidences that are often a direct result of wondering whether readers will get it if you don’t smack them on the head with it. How come every one who has ever met Mr Johnson describes him by his birthmark? And why are there so many people connected to him? Somewhere into the first few accounts of him, readers already know what to make of his character.

Besides the matter of a plot that was allowed to go bad, my other grouse is with the apparent “Nigerianisms” in Chibundu’s writing; expressions like “they reached the gate” make it appear that Chibundu is not elevating her vocabulary to cater to global readers. As for dialogue, it needs be said that every character gets a paragraph no matter how little they say, to allow for clarity.

The vaguer sixth: Proclaiming the chemical purity in the reaction between me and the Spider King’s Daughter and its writer

I came to this book with no bias formed, if there were any preceding reactions, it was excitement at reading the work of a young, female Nigerian writer, who had at 19, while grappling with an undergraduate degree in history, managed to secure a two book contract with a major international publisher. My opinion after reading The Spider Kings…, however, is that Chibundu needs to allow herself grow. Not in style, necessarily, she has that aplenty, but in the structure of the craft, and in experience. If for nothing else but to be able to achieve the kind of confident recount that is only acquired through a fair bit worldliness – one that will enable her craft better dialogue than “So what’s your name?”, “They call me Runner G on the road. What’s yours?” “They used to call me Mr T in my office.”

Buy The Spider King’s Daughter on Amazon

Review: Voice of America by EC Osondu

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Voice of America by EC Osondu

215 pp

Granta Books (2010)

Rating: 3/5

The thing about a short story collection is that, unless you are Jumpha Lahiri, it’s a gamble. African novelists like Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila have staked their reputation on writing or editing a collection in short form to mixed reactions. And EC Osondu, though so far unburdened by previous acclaim for long work, again illustrates the peril of the short story with his debut collection, Voice of America.

Published by Granta Books, Osondu’s collection of eighteen stories focuses mostly on the immigrant life in America, and culls, no doubt, from his own experiences. Like Uwem Akpan’s Say You Are One of Them, the stories in the collection favour child protagonists or narrators, and use this as an avenue for satire, but also, somewhat like childlike natter, they yo-yo from the inspired to the passable to the dreadful.

Osondu is a master of openings and sequences but closings are an entirely different matter, as he appears to lose his way in the anecdotes he copiously works through his stories, and then hurries to take the first exit he chances by when needless, but nonetheless enjoyable, digressions have blinded him to plot.

But it isn’t all bad, Osondu uses a language that doesn’t aspire to anything but its  most important function: communication; with its crisp, simple language, this book is one of the easiest books to read. Also, this collection can lay claim to structure – at least regarding story length – and I was quite content knowing that each story would be tidily set between eleven and eighteen pages. It is something that other collections like The Granta Book of the African Short Story could emulate next time. But knowing, with most of the stories in Voice of America that the end is bearing down when a story still has a ways to go, and finding, as you read a hasty conclusion, that you are right does not quite make for sated reading.

Osondu opens the collection, fittingly, with ‘Waiting’, the story that earned him the 2009 Caine Prize, and the recognition that might have afforded Voice of America publication by Granta. ‘Waiting’ is a quiet story of war, told in a child’s matter of fact, yet understated voice.  He introduces us to the world of refugee camps, where children are named after their relief donation clothing, and where survival itself is a waiting – for food, for water, for adoption – and a struggle against others as desperate as you when it does arrive. This story showcases the harrowing effects of war on children with subtlety, and as it reads like a novel excerpt, it possesses potential to be expanded.

After this great start, Voice of America promptly goes into hiatus, with stories like ‘Bar Beach Show’, which while rich in historical resource, gets lost in jagged dialogue and a hurried climax. We experience this same brilliant set off followed by a settling into triviality with our ‘Our First American’ and ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ until finally ‘A Letter from Home’, which I would rank the best piece of the collection. ‘A Letter…’ is a monologue by a mother who tries to persuade her son, amid threats and exhortations, to return home to Nigeria, like his peers in the village, with the riches of America. It is no wonder that in 2006 it was said to be among the top ten most popular stories on the internet. And the only thing I might have enjoyed as well as this piece, would be the son’s own reply to his mother.

There are other brilliant stories too: ‘Welcome to America’ is about that time when one is newly arrived in a country, like the new kid in school  before he begins to know which cafeteria seats are taken even when they are vacant, and which cliques to avoid if he isn’t after instant initiation into the ‘loser’ club. It is a story that every immigrant will identify with. ‘The Men They Married’, in four short parts, explores the desperation and resignation of Nigerian women who realise that being a wife in America isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. ‘Miracle Baby’ –  about a woman’s desire for a child, driven by her mother in-law’s expectations – explores in hilarious detail Osondu’s disdain for religiosity as is obtainable in Nigeria. Osondu’s baby market scene is brilliant: “Are you married to a white man? Don’t worry, we have many half-castes among us here who can give you a very yellow baby… or is it the money that you are worried about? We accept instalment payment.”

The weakest story of the lot is ‘Stars in My Mother’s Eyes, Stripes on My Back’. I’ll summarise: A normally frugal father (with a proclivity for domestic violence) takes his son to a departmental store, he tells the boy he can have whatever catches his eye, and gets embarrassingly talkative when the substantial bill comes up at the till. Luckily, the woman behind him on the queue is gracious enough to come to his rescue, vouching for him as she picks up the tab, “I know you’ll do it for someone else”. Father then pats son on the back for this imagined victory as they saunter home with the freebies [End]. Is this story about subtle trickery? Was this supermarket run the manhood-test for the son as earlier proposed in the story? Perhaps Osondu himself understands this story, but he doesn’t do a great job of telling it.

The strength of this collection is in the range of the themes that are harnessed from the immigrant experience. ‘Janjaweed Wife’, ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ and ‘Waiting’ are a few stories different in setting and subject but which help break the monotony of shuttling between the two predominant settings.

Voice of America is a marriage of the Nigerian and American cultures and climes, and the stranglehold in which this tug of war between old ties and the new vistas hold those caught within their bounds. Osondu’s collection is funny and perceptive, yet it could have offered more than it does with greater dedication to structure and idea.

Nonetheless, this collection is a reminder of the reasons why the short story remains my favourite form of literature – brevity, impact, and the knowing that one can be transported to a myriad of places and situations, in the time it takes to go through one novel. And Osondu achieves these admirably.

Healing with humour: Bernadine Evaristo lampoons the slave trade in Blonde Roots

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Penguin books

Published 2008

pp 261

Psychology experts advise that when we lose someone or something valuable, rather than clam up and nurse resentments till their bulk bears down and suffocates, that we talk about it; to, in effect, purge emotions by talking the life out of our dearly departed.

Not many Black British, Black American or African people seem to have taken that line in coping with the historical and present consequences of slavery, or in coming to terms with the injustices of the era and the lives and dignity lost to the transatlantic slave trade. Not, perhaps, until 2008 and Bernadine Evaristo‘s first fully prose book Blonde Roots. True, there’ve been pointed fingers and diatribes marking every slavery abolition anniversary since William Wilberforce‘s succesful anti-slavery campaign, but these are akin to the usual lamentations of “why me?” by the bereaved.

Evaristo airs out this half-millenium long shame, with the kind of neutrality one supposes only she – biracial as she is -could have mustered. She moves us gently from ‘What the hell is she playing at?’ to fascination with the skewed history she has enacted and finally to the realisation that it feels no better (as a black person) to have the shoe on the other foot. Just as I despair silently, eons after my African ancestors have been corralled, coffled and chained, and taken on a seemingly endless journey to servitude, so do tears well in my eyes when I read of young, frail whyte Dafyyd: “our procession ground to a halt. Daffyd wasn’t moving… Garanwyn tried to tell the gurads he would carry his little brothers on his shoulder but they ignored him… (Daffyd) was released from the coffle and swung by his arms and legs into some bushes.

This episode lets us readers come to the realisation of perhaps something we have known all along but sacrificed for our racial prejudices – past injustices, whether it’s whyte enslaving blacks, Jews persecuting Christian Germans, or the hostility of a plutocratic government against its proletariat, are not caused by race or creed but of our human capacity – subdued in most of us, and dominant in a few others- to be inexplicably cruel to kind. Perhaps slavery was always bound to be one way or another (even the religious books support it). This, I think. is what Evaristo very capably demonstrates in this role reversal classic.

And it isn’t all grim, a light, pacey plot helps us laugh at the caricature Evaristo has drawn of us, in the present day, with our continued neo-colonialist mentality: “The hairdressers used kinky Aphrikan hair on the (whyte) women, who had their own fine hair chopped off and these bushy pieces sewn onto them so that the effect was (un)naturally Aphrican. It took up to ten hours… and you could get a nose flattening job done quite cheaply…the very thought of a mallet smashing down on my nose was just too scary for words.” This, one realises, is what happens when a people’s identity is cruelly discarded by a “superior race”. Colour has nothing to do with it.

But beyond creating distorted mirror images, Evaristo leaves us with humorous landmarks. Bakalo, Mayfah, Wool Wi Che, Coasta Coffee, Paddinto – all transplanted from Great Britain to Great Ambrosia, just so we do not lose ourselves in her previously uncharted waters. She further pulls us back from her fancies with language relevant to our time, garnished with her tongue-in-cheek narrative. Expressions like “My terms of engagement stipulated that it was a job for life, that my hours should run from Sunday to Monday 12 a.m. to 11.55 p.m. daily, although i needed to be available to do overtime when required. I would receive an annual wage of nothing with an added bonus of nothing for good behaviour… i was only knocked about a it in the early days as part of my in-service training when my work report read: Attendance 100%, punctuality 100%, motivation 10%”, “It made great business sense for the Europanes. They received luxury items such as battered old hats and knives and in return sold off healthy specimens of the human race” miraculously lift the gloom particularly favoured by any previous fictional and factual accounts of slavery accounts.

Blonde Roots, with its feisty, smart-mouthed heroine/narrator Omorenomwara (formerly Doris Scagglethorpe) has us shuffling between Great Ambrosia and the West Japanese Islands in Africa to the Cabbage Coast in the Grey Continent of Europa. Evasristo’s plot (especially earlier on) is like a shuffled deck of cards where the past segue seamlessly into the present. I must confess that I was taken aback when in Book Two Evaristo introduces “The reflections, thoughts, experiences and sentiments of the venerable Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I (Omorenomwara’s master) on the slave trade. She had me ten pages in when she explores the lies coated in the scientific that the slave-holders peddled among themselves to justify the trade. It does enrage!

I will quote loosely the chapter titled ‘Some are more human than others’: The caucasonoid, native to the hell-hole Europa is proven by Craniofaecia Antropometry as being biologically inferior to the negroid (indegenous to Aphrika) and is in fact a neo-primate. The skull contains a far smaller brain because it is limited by its cranial structure, while its orthognathous jaw denotes weakness of character, limited imagination and restricted intellect. these together produce traits of cowardice, laziness, moral degradation, and a nonsensical, unintelligible language known as mumble jumble. the caucasonoid are further incapable of acute emotionality or pain – be not deceived into thinking that the blood shed and torn skin during a beating is a crime against humanity.

In what might be the only false step of the novel, Evaristo goes overboard with her replication and introduces ebonics much later in the novel. because the language, which is specific to descendants of West-African slaves is so closely imitated in expressions and flow, it takes away the alternate representation that she had worked so hard to achieve in the first part of the novel. The characters simply sounded so black that the images in my head soon corrected themselves – Doris became black and Katamba a white slavemaster; and even frequent mental notes to correct the characterisation failed. Why ever did Evaristo take away their English language?

Plot wise, the “scorned first son” story lost its flavour the second time over. Why would Bwana do to his son what had been unfairly done to him? And Nonso was a bit too revealing and familiar in his confrontation with Omorenomwa in the final part of the book. In that one instance less would have been much more.

Evaristo’s imagination (creating a model counter-universe) and light-heartened (employing humour in the darkest of situations) can only be compared with JK Rowling’s in this satirical novel, in which she delivers the sorrow of the loss of family, a passage in-extremis, many tearful partings, two attempted escapes, and the horrors of a life of servitude with jocosity “Massa Rotimi once nailed a repeat offender’s ear to a tree… he forced a runway to lie down and another to shit in her mouth… I had seen limbs removed, skin scalded, cheeks branded… once a man was roasted over a spit, alive… another was suspended under a spit of pork so that the scalding fat removed his skin.” The era of slavery was a indeed cruel, miserable time, and in spite of Evaristo’s unrelenting humour, or maybe because of it, its iniquitous nature is acute in Blonde Roots. Evaristo’s

Evaristo’s 260 page novel strips away both the lingering racial outrage about – and the growing forgetfulness – of the 500 year period . It is no wonder it that it enjoys descriptions such as “brilliant”, “audacious” and “astonishing” by The Telegraph, The Independent and The Times.

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A review: Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

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Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Published by Bloomsbury

283pp

Some books are hard to review. Most times because the precise combination of story, style and characterisation makes such an impression that analysis might well turn into panegyric. Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung, is one such book. It was a relief, therefore, to have had something (if slight) to quarrel with at the novel’s end.

But first the synopsis: Romochka, a four-year old Russian boy, is abandoned in an evacuated tenement building by his mother and uncle for reasons that readers never get to know. After a few days of tinkering in the desolate building, hungry and cold, he ventures out into the late autumn. But with his mother’s stringent warnings about dangerous strangers ringing in his ears, he discards ideas of seeking refuge with the neighbours and instead finds himself trailing a female dog. 

What follows is Romochka’s wary acceptance into the lair of a clan of dogs, his first meal in days – of milk suckled from Mamochka, as he comes to call the clan matriarch. And three years of weathering season changes, fighting clan battles and surviving militzia raids with his expanding family; as well as of transforming from an inept “puppy” seeking acceptance and worth in the canine family, into a lead dog to be regarded with deference.

What might have from a lesser writer been a suffocating time spent in the hold of the reeking, underground lair becomes in the hands of Hornung a privileged eavesdrop on bizarre experiences and first hand acquaintance with the rituals and psychology of man’s best friend.

And just when the reader begins to get the sense of knowing it all, the writer changes tacks, outraging us along with Romochka when Mamochka unapologetically adopts yet another human child – one that Romochka ironically names ‘Puppy’, a label he never used for his canine siblings. The writer further saves a plot that might have tapered to a dead end by switching points of view much later in the novel, and introducing adult human characters to ease the readers’ approaching canine-weariness, and bring into societal significance the unseen but no less meaningful lives of feral dogs in modern day Moscow.

Romochka is one of the more dynamic characters I have encountered in literature – a hybrid of boy, man and dog, both naïve and world wise; wicked and tender (he kills a human without compunction, yet regrets when he has to butcher a cat for a meal); and is adept at casting himself in any roles as required by present circumstance and the expectation of the city’s human population – one time he’s a dog owner begging for scraps and coercing his “two pretty performers” to shed their wild behaviour while on the job, another time he’s a human sibling demanding to see his younger brother in a civil establishment, other times he morphs into modern day Tarzan wrestling enemy dogs.

One thing Hornung has in her favour is that not many readers, perhaps none, can claim acquaintance with a dog-raised human boy, so we have no recourse but to depend on her imagination, backed no doubt by research, to point us one way or the other. But from this writer, whose experience with dogs is limited to the odd pat, her behavioural depictions ring true. Feral dog owners can insert disagreement here.

Still Dog Boy is as much a critique of society as it is an expose on canine habitation. It illustrates on the one hand, the practiced blindness of Moscow- and indeed most cosmopolitan areas- to its dark underbelly; and on the other, people’s innate doctrinaire ideals and their eagerness to find familiar explanations for confounding observations.

Written in a simple narrative style in the omniscient observer perspective, almost like conversational addresses by a narrator Romochka’s own age, Dog Boy is almost entirely sparing of dialogue – in a way that is unnoticeable as well as understandable (dogs only talk in Disney movies after all). But a few diary entries, chapters introduced with different perspectives and voices, news reports, and human soliloquies employing professional argot break up the monotony of a full on narrative.

Now to my grouse: Despite being abandoned by his human mother, Romockha’s experiences are irrevocably shaped by this elusive character; and it is disappointing that the author declines to expound on why a mother would abandon her child, nor afford the readers closure by introducing her later in the story. Also, while being the consummate obfuscator, Romochka appears slightly more eloquent in human conversation than his limited interaction with people leads us to expect. Even if most of his words are borrowed from fragments of conversation – statements like: “but for some piss, the world is full of shit” or “I can get you a bird… it’s not fucking easy but I can get you a bird” are difficult to attribute to a seven year old who last used language when he was four.

For a novel that defies pigeon-holing in the simple fact of its plot, one of its themes, the one that supports the prejudice that humans, by virtue of proven intelligence, always know what is best for other animal species, is something of a letdown. Nonetheless, it helps that the novel closes with the human characters left uncertain about the rightness of their actions.

First published in The Sun, Nigeria, October 2011

Writing Across the Colour Margin (On Booker Prize longlister, Pigeon English)

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Stephen Kelman's debut novel and Booker prize longlister

Even before Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, Pigeon English, was published, it had generated a lot of attention for (need this be repeated?)being plucked out of “a literary agency’s slush pile”, sparking a “bidding war” and being eventually bought for “a high six-figure sum”.

Since its debut earlier this year and its recent inclusion on this year’s Booker Prize longlist, reactions have only intensified. This is part due to the fact that it addresses that bothersome issue of child gangs and knife crime that has recently plagued the UK’s inner cities; part due to the proliferation of the “child protagonist” genre made popular by books such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time and Emma Donoghue’s The Room; and also because of widely divergent views on whether it deserved all the pre-publication hype that it enjoyed.

The novel, by chronicling the experiences of its 11-year-old protagonist, Harrison ‘Harri’ Opoku, a Ghanaian boy newly arrived in London, tackles themes that are relevant to today’s urban society. In the words of Benjamin Evans of The Telegraph UK, it is “a novel that is close to understanding why children are murdering other children on our streets.”

The Guardian’s Alex Clark sees it as a novel that passes a strong message about how it is “the lot of most children to see more than the adults in their lives”, and conversely how absent and self absorbed adulthood and its many distractions can render us. Its great achievement, many will say, is de-isolating urban crime and installing it in a place where ethics and iniquity, love and hate coexist: the real world.

Less favourable reviews have a gripe with certain elements of Pigeon English. To some, the 11-year-old perspective and voice of Harri appear “faux-naif”. For many others, it is the overly eloquent addresses by Harri’s guardian pigeon that rankle. A few more insist that the appeal of the young person’s perspective is wearing thin, and Pigeon English is effectively just another The Curious Incident (down to the amateurish murder investigations).

There is however an important demographic from whom feedback on the novel has been lacking: the African immigrant reader that Harri represents. Important because it takes a bit more to win them over – they start the novel most probably taken aback by the prospect of being depicted by a white man.

David Njoku, a Nigerian writer, and winner of the 1995 BBC short story prize, admits: “I came to Pigeon English with a lot of baggage: What gives this white man the right to tell our story? We Africans harbour a secret suspicion that (whites) do not truly regard us as equals. At the end of every expression of respect or admiration – or even of polite greeting – we hear an unspoken snigger, as if we are secretly being made fun of.”

Another reason why the African reader’s critique is vital to discussions on Pigeon English is that they know what it feels like to be Harri- thrown into the deep end of a new culture. Also, Kelman adopts African beliefs, sensibilities and patois; and the book is, to a large extent, a fictional adaptation of the story of a real life individual, the Nigerian boy, Damilola Taylor.

Stephen Kelman explains his reasons for introducing slight distinctions between Harri and Damilola Taylor: “I didn’t want to make the parallels between my fictional story and real events too close.” What informed his choice of a Ghanaian protagonist was among others, the fact that “there is a growing presence of Ghanaian immigrants in the area in which I lived during the writing of the book, and I was able to draw on that for inspiration.”

It must have been a useful resource  for a  writer who has never visited Africa, but yet had a “story that won’t stop nagging” to tell about Africans, to have neighbours who call scary things “hutious”, admonish each other to “advise yourself” and tease their friends as being “dey touch”. But the major consideration was access to the character: “Ghanaians (and Nigerians) share a West African sensibility that is similar in some ways, a colonial past and English as a second language.”

While, however, argots like “bo-styles”, “asweh”, “hunger idey kill me”, “gowayou” and “dey touch” might have been inserted with enough frequency to satisfy the Western reader; to  West African readers  their syntax have often been noticeably wrong.

And it is this that Njoku points out as the novel’s main flaw. “I struggled to find affection for this book for a long time. Being of West African origin myself, I found it very hard to get past the jarringly ungrammatical pidgin English. Yes, pidgin English has rules as strict as those of any other language.”

The internet may have afforded Kelman the opportunity – through online dictionaries and language guides – to contextualise many of the expressions he had picked up from his neighbours, but it takes a long time to understand the nuances of a language, as the novel’s lapses prove.

This begs the question: should authors even try to write across racial and ethnic demarcations without having first-hand experience of the culture they are depicting?

Nigerian journalist, Tolu Ogunlesi says writers need not be “disqualified” from writing about a place because they are not from there, and his opinion is hinged on the possibility that foreigners may acquire a better knowledge of a place than some of its indigenes. “Michael Peel (author of A Swamp Full of Dollars, a non-fiction account of Nigeria’s oil region) was a Financial Times journalist based in Nigeria. There are chances he knows more of Nigeria than I do,” says Ogunlesi.

Lola Shoneyin, author of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, admires the brilliance of foreign writers in capturing the geographical ambience of Nigeria even if they unwittingly “project Western thoughts and behaviours to their characters.”

Njoku however thinks that the idea is precipitate. He explains: “I am still a little unsold on the idea of a white man attempting to see through the eyes of a black man. Far too often that turns the black man into a caricature. And our wounds from our joint history are still too sore for that.  Give it another 100 years.”

That being said, Kelman does many things right with Pigeon English. What some may criticise as the overuse of the word “even” and his occasional displacement of prepositions are clever tricks by Kelman to root his first person narrative more firmly in a child’s milieu, especially that of the West African child. Also, he wisely dispenses with the clumsiness of “he said”, “she declared” by employing drama-style colons to attribute expressions to a character. This helps make the dialogue less cumbersome and more childlike.

Admirably, Kelman touches deeply on the sensibilities of the West African culture – like their propensity for superstition as depicted in Harri’s fear of Asasabonsam (human-looking vampires that the Ashanti people of West Africa believe dwell in forests, hang from trees and have iron teeth), and in his mind-the-floor-crack agreement to ensure “that the holidays will be sunny everyday.”

He also depicts Harri as less world-wise and cruel than his peers. Even while affecting a tough exterior, Harri cannot help but love pigeons, trees and his little sister; or demonstrate a feeling of responsibility to “save the day”. This, the author says, is “a response to the fact that the West is further down the road of moral corruption than the Ghana Harri has come from.” And that Africa possesses “a stronger sense of family and community (and) a greater grasp of the concept of duty”.

Perhaps it is this acknowledgment of the African value system, as well as the fantastic representation of boyhood that will make a convert of readers like Njoku, who says, “Kelman perfectly captures the thought processes of a boy on the cusp of his teenage years, at once innocent and wise.  Harri is constantly discovering and immediately explaining the world around him.”

It is this remarkable adroitness of an adult in depicting childhood that Kelman sees as his greatest accomplishment. “Writing Harri allowed me to take a look at my world from a different perspective. Sometimes I think it’s only by stepping into unfamiliar shoes that we really get to examine the things that are important.”

And a Man Booker award might yet prove that he is right on that score.

First published in The Sun, Nigeria, 28 August, 2011

Flirting with the dark

Standard

On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe

Pp 296

Published by Vintage (2010)

Paperback £7.99

If there is one adjective to describe Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, it would be ‘coquettish’. The book flirts around the dark subject of human trafficking and prostitution, and yet manages to remain remarkably decorous.

The lives of four young African girls trafficked to Belgium for prostitution are interminably entwined in this novel that examines the situations and ambitions that lead them to the booths on the Vingerlingstraat where they attempt to make the most of the “trump card that God had wedged between their legs”.

On Black Sisters’ Street is a peculiar book, misleading in its honesty; therefore, one never quite appreciates the subtle significance of events that begin the book until a second read. And it is not that Unigwe has not given her readers a reason to: She hints early on at the death of her main character but her cavalier mention of it, belies the fact.

All that Sisi, Efe, Ama and Joyce have in common is their African origin, and the man, Dele who is the point that connects them. All four bear their different pasts stoically until the need for communal ties in the desperate situation that they have resignedly convinced themselves to be “the good life” forces them out of the pact of silence they have sworn with their past.

Sisi is a university graduate, who haunted by failure- “an ineluctable destiny that she had contracted from her parents”- sought the fortune that had been prophesied at her birth. Efe, driven under by her mother’s death, her father’s alcohol addiction and an unwanted pregnancy thinks tacit agreement to Dele’s proposition is the only way back to life. Ama is angry at the world, bearing wounds sustained from childhood rape experiences; and employing a calculated cruelty as her shield. Joyce is the ungrateful survivor of a war that wipes out her family, resigned to whatever else life hurls her way.

The house on the Zwartezusterstraat – filled with the noise of Ama’s quarrelsome voice, Efe’s highlife music and Joyce’s relentless swish swish – is claustrophobic; made stuffy with the stench of mildewed dreams. Readers are, like the girls, hardly let out of the narrow door with the taped-over cat flap unless it is to return down memory lane, to visit with men in dingy hotel rooms and bar room toilets; or to a chance encounter with ill-advised love.

Flitting deftly between the present and the past, On Black Sister’s Street reads like a collection of tales, alighting briefly on subjects such as war, poverty, child abuse and cultural isolation while it tells of the entrapment, sullied self-worth, and the danger of un-extinguished hope borne by tens of thousands of African (especially Nigerian) prostitutes in Europe held at the mercy of pimps and public systems that care only for their own.

This novel is one of the recent myriad attempts by African authors to tell their own stories in a world made one-dimensional by the limits of the media in the developing world. It is not entirely devoid of hope either as the fate of its four protagonists affirms the time worn philosophy that there is light at the end of every dark tunnel.

First published in Vulture Magazine, May 2011