April 10, 2009

Measuring Time by Helon Habila | Book Review

Helon Habila is a familiar name among book readers home and abroad. Extracts from his collection of short stories, Prison Stories, were published in Nigeria in 2000. His full novel, Waiting for an Angel was published in 2002 and it won him the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in the Africa Region. It has been translated into many languages including Dutch, Italian, Swedish and French.

His second book, Measuring Time, published in 2007, is a tale of twin boys, Mamo and LaMamo pushed out into the world with their mother’s last breath in a tiny village in North eastern Nigeria. LaMamo is healthy, extroverted and bold. He’s the one who stands up to their father, the one their distant father gives attention. Mamo, the elder twin, has to stay indoors and away from strenuous activities because he’s sick a lot of the time.

Mamo brings up the idea of their becoming famous. It’s the second commandment in his mental diary – “CHEAT DEATH, BE FAMOUS”. It’s the only way for him to “live on” when his body loses its battle against the sickle-cell illness he has. When their long forgotten uncle, Haruna, assumed dead in the Biafran war, returns and is celebrated and talked about by the whole village, they decide to run away with their cousin to the state capital to join army recruits. Mamo falls violently ill just as they are about to cross the river on the last lap of their escape. Instead of letting this ruin their plans, he selflessly tells them to go on without him. Alone in the dreary village, Mamo tries to find ways to occupy his mind while he takes pleasure in concealing his brother's whereabouts from their father. Later he gets an offer from the state university and leaves the village to spend two years at the state university studying history. Unfortunately, his illness prevents him from taking his final exam and he returns to Keti without a degree.

Grounded in the village by his illness, and watching with disquiet as his father dabbles in local politics, he accepts a teaching position at his uncle's school. Zara, a girl he was infatuated with as a teen, returns to Keti. Now she’s a bitter woman, bruised inside and out by her military husband, who has also forcefully takes custody of their child. She takes up a teaching post at his uncle’s school and they begin a strained relationship. When the school is closed and Zara travels, Mamo’s days seem twice as long. During his wait for something, anything to happen to take his mind away from the mundane, he measures time in the shadow cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one footfall and the next, between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form seasons.

He stumbles upon a book on Keti’s history, written by a foreign missionary, while in Zara’s house. She encourages him to review it, and then she sends it to a professor at her alma mater. It’s published in a Ugandan journal and slowly word of it gets round the village. Keti’s most flamboyant pastor puts it on his churchs notice board and even weaves it into his Sunday sermon. His uncle puts it on the school notice board for all to see. Suddenly everyone is talking about him, shaking his hand and thanking him for putting their village on the map. The Mai (local chief) contracts him to write his biography in time for his tenth year coronation anniversary; he is invited to address the local youths,to incite them to positive action; now he's rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty in exclusive social circles. Mamo becomes famous. Later on, things take an ugly turn. The research he’s doing for the Mai’s biography is unearthing a lot of dirt that will smear the Mai’s name; his father is planning to rig the local election and his aunt is held in custody to arm twist him into doing something against his principles.

LaMamo however has to die to become “famous”. He returns home one-eyed and lean to meet a home and a beloved village in disarray. Angry that his people are suffering from bad governance, he incites them to fight for their liberation. He gathers an angry mob and leads them to the Mai’s palace. They raze it down, kill the scheming Waziri but spare the Mai. LaMamo dies in his house from bullet wounds and Mamo continues alone.

In this book, Habila commands attention from the first page. Measuring Time is a remarkable story told compellingly and cleverly. The tone is confident and the prose is non-fat. Habila is a talented storyteller.

[Image via Ugandian Insomniac]

April 04, 2009

The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi | Book Review

Writing a second novel after the huge success of the first must be a little scary. There’s definitely enormous pressure to deliver a second time. Helen Oyeyemi’s second book The Opposite House, published two years after her critically acclaimed and successful debut novel The Icarus Girl, seems to be one of those books written either in a hurry or under pressure.

Sometimes a child with wise eyes is born.
Then some people will call that child an old soul.
That is enough to make God laugh. For instance there is Yemaya Saramagua, who lives in the somewherehouse.”

Those are the first four sentences in The Opposite House. It tells the story of Maja, a 24-year-old girl who has lived in London since she was five. She’s a mediocre singer about to graduate from college. She hides the early stages of her pregnancy from her devoted boyfriend Aaron, and refuses to marry him for some reason that translates into – I’m not ready for marriage just yet. She and her gay friend Amy Eleni, a Cypriot, who seems to have the same hysteric problem Maja does, bond tightly despite the usual ups and downs of friendship.

Her parents are black Cubans who have fled their country because of the turmoil created by leaders they had faith in. Maja yearns to visit what she calls “my Cuba”, to explore this fatherland that she has been thinking about for a very long time and buys plane tickets before telling her father. He refuses to give his consent because he’s disappointed and saddened by the events that are occurring in their homeland. He tells Maja that the reason they are not living in Cuba is because: “…it’s not safe…staying there is accepting the lies of a regime that in its aimlessness will destroy the country.” He has shifted base to London because he wants his family to be free, to be under a government that does not affect whether or not they can eat what they want to eat, see films they want to see and read what they want to read. "I brought you here so you don't have to live in a place where politics can actually bust your door down, or make you disappear..." He suspects that his parents and in-laws have have roots in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His wife's religion is a blend of Catholicism and old traditional customs, that he finds irritating and tries hard to tolerate.

In the book, Maja does a lot of thinking about her roots. There’s a part in the novel where a Nigerian kid in her class holds a special assembly of friends on the independence day of her country and passes around Nigerian snacks. Amy and Maja are irritated by this action and Amy asks out loud:

“Can I just ask you what you think of this idea: if your parents taught you to be so proud of Nigeria, how come they’re over here?” The embarrassed child stammers and fiddles with her tie and dye head wrap. Later on, Amy wrote:

You know what, if you want to talk about your country, if you want to be serious about it, fine. But you don’t need to pretend that you love the place. People need to stop using love of some country that they don’t live in as an excuse for their inability to shut up about it.”

That portion of the novel will ring in the head of immigrants long after they drop the book. The Opposite House still contains themes that Oyeyemi explored in The Icarus girl (you can find my thoughts on it here). Did I envisage that? No. Did I find that disappointing? Yes. It would have been more refreshing for her to steer clear of those themes, at least for her second book.

I hate to say this but I must. The Opposite House is the worst book I’ve read in a while. My mind kept screaming for me to put it down. It goes this way and then it goes that way. It’s a struggle to read this book. The only reason I ploughed through this book was for the purpose of this review. I forced myself to read lines that my brain repelled. This is no book for “light reading”. This is one of those books a lot of people will pick up then drop, then pick up again, and then fight through the prose in the hope of finding a more engaging center. The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi is one of those books you read and never recommend to someone else. Oyeyemi possesses incredible talent, make no mistake about that, however The Opposite House is a dreadful book.

[Image via FantasticFiction.co.uk]

April 03, 2009

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta | Book Review

Enitan Bandele, Atta’s protagonist in her debut novel Everything Good Will Come, begins her story from age eleven, just before her first period, at the onset of both her attraction to the opposite sex and her friendship with Sheri Bakare, a rude and precocious eleven years old girl who lives next door. Enitan’s (pronounced Eni-ton) parents have their share of marital problems and she can’t wait to leave her miserable home for the boarding house.

After High School, London University and a few failed relationships she returns to Nigeria, to meet separated parents, the “nuisances” of Lagos and a nation in turmoil. Coups, suffering masses, fuel-scarcity, poor educational infrastructures, widespread corruption and many ills plague the nation even as it staggers under the dictatorial rule of the military. Initially everything seems to be going smoothly, a job with her father, a new beau and a resumed relationship with her childhood friend Sheri. Then she becomes unsatisfied and unhappy with the paltry sum her father pays despite her foreign degree, unhappy with the working conditions in her dad’s office and all over the country and later on she's unwilling to sit and watch. She gets married but refuses to be a “kitchen martyr”, refuses to be under total subjection to her husband. She’s repulsed by the way women give up their lives once they become hitched to become soulless beings. When her husband refuses to “let” her pursue her activism, she takes her young daughter and leaves him. But that’s not how the book ends…

Everything Good Will Come is very, very Nigerian in its telling. It’s not “westernized”. It’s refreshing. It’s like reading from someone who lives around the corner, who uses phrases like - “God saved all of you”, “Juju-ed”, “Like joke, like joke”… Sefi has done a fantastic job of describing Lagos, Nigeria. It’s so vivid you can see it all.

Everything Good Will Come is humourous and interesting but not “un-put-down-able”. Atta has a love for Lagos evident in this novel and the subsequent one (I read her second book before this). It’s a backdrop she seems to find irresistible. Like Swallow (Atta’s second book, published in 2009. READ my review HERE), Everything Good Will Come has Sefi showing Lagos as it is – dirty, overpopulated, corrupt, diverse but still lovable. So despite the fact that Atta has earned a reputation for being unpredictable in her story telling, her protagonists now seem to have a predictable trait. In Swallow and Everything Good Will Come, Atta’s female protagonists are irritated with the decay in their country and very much in love with Lagos city despite its maddening chaos.

However, Everything Good Will Come still remains the work of a gifted writer who weaves humour into her tales so that they are never too depressing. Atta’s debut novel has given her local and international recognition. Now, everyone’s waiting to see what Will Come.

[Image via FantasticFiction.co.uk]