February 17, 2009

The Abyssinian Boy by Onyeka Nwelue | Book Review

"No family in Delhi, or the whole of India celebrated Diwali more sweetly than the Rajagopolan family." So begins Onyeka Nwelue’s curiously christened debut novel The Abyssinian Boy, we are then drawn into the daily lives of the Rajogopolan’s, an extended family resident in India.

Rajaswamy Rajagopolan is a career-driven polemicist writer, who may have married a Nigerian wife for a reason other than love, and who harbours a troubling secret. Eunice Rajagopalan is the daughter of a former secretary at the Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi. Fully aware their parents won’t consent to their interracial marriage, they decide to force them into conceding by getting Eunice pregnant. They get hitched and give birth to David, the protagonist, the Abyssinian boy, who is now a precocious preteen with a penchant for swear words. David is puzzled about his identity, his race, the fact that unlike his friends, he has an Indian father and a Nigerian mother. He’s very familiar with racial bias because it’s something he deals with daily. He is like every other nine year old around him except he is being visited in his dreams by a mysterious albino dwarf. On one occasion, the dwarf visits him, his mother and his father in their dreams in one night. But for the most part, his parents and every member of his extended family go on with their daily life while David is traipsing with the dwarf, to strange places and going back in time. When the family makes a brief trip to Nigeria, the dwarfs’ visits become more regular and more disturbing.

Setting his story against a period of strained relations between Nigeria and India, Onyeka brings to attention the complexity of interracial marriages. He shows how discrimination can be mind-corrupting and pervasive and silly. He humourously shows how people sit in one corner of the planet and make ill informed generalizations about people who live far far away. People they've most times had no contact with in any way.

I found the many characters Onyeka created and the fact that he gave each of them attention, distracting and tiresome at times. In some places, he sort of rambles on, giving background knowledge about a character we need to know little or nothing about. It’s like having flies buzz in front of you when you’re trying to focus on something. It could have been better done. Onyeka’s sentence constructions are not the usual type. He tries to sound different. It’s the kind of thing Arundhati Roy does in The God of Small Things, and it suits this novel in some parts, in others however, it just doesn’t sound right. Towards the end, where the reader is supposed to feel loss, it’s fleeting. Even the grieving of the characters at that point seem rushed in a way. It doesn’t sink in heavily like it should. He doesn’t let us follow the bereaved immediately but distracts us with someone we do not want to read about just then. It’s frustrating. There are a few flaws, but nothing that mars the novel seriously.

The Abyssinian Boy is definitely unique. It’s unique in its storytelling, and in the way it handles the issues it deals with. I think it’s bold and commendable that Nwelue did not choose to write on something familiar, but he chooses instead to go into unfamiliar territory, and then juxtapose the two cultures at the heart of this book, so we can see into lives far away from ours. Onyeka’s debut novel is charming and laudable.


  1. i hate critics.. they make your work suckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.... oh... Sorry..
    The review is indeed splendid. The novel was interesting.. except as you say.. a few flaws.. But Onyeka Nwelue's first outing is incredibly awesome..

  2. @ Dizzle

    I'm sorry you hate critics. I don't think I made Onyeka's work suck, if i did, i apologize. It's a review, someone has got to read it and tell you wassup, don't you agree?

    @ Latifa

    Thanks a lot. Was I a bit harsh?