Out of Africa, three ap­proaches to fic­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adam Rivett

Any re­view con­sid­er­ing three con­tem­po­rary African nov­els that would pre­sume to gen­er­alise about an en­tire con­ti­nent is doomed to crude sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, so let’s start with one fact: th­ese books stand apart, not to­gether. If a re­la­tion­ship must be in­sisted on per­haps it is that their au­thors are ex­em­plary ex­po­nents of three cur­rent ap­proaches to fic­tion, three modes dis­tinc­tive in tone, de­sign and pur­pose.

The Fish­er­men, Chigozie Obioma’s de­but novel, is an in­cred­i­bly as­sured piece of writ­ing. Track­ing the child­hood of four broth­ers in the Nige­rian town of Akure, it is a com­ing-of-age tale marked by darker forces than the genre usu­ally per­mits. Reared by an over­worked mother, and with a fa­ther ab­sent for long stretches of time be­cause of work, the four boys — Ikenna, Boja, Obe­mbe and Benjamin — move from mis­ad­ven­ture to tragedy af­ter one of them is cursed by Abulu, the town’s prophet­like mad­man.

It is a novel of mod­ern Nige­ria still un­der the thrall of su­per­sti­tion, and is marked by two qual­i­ties: the con­sis­tent fine­ness of its prose and its deft han­dling of nar­ra­to­rial per­spec­tive. Obioma’s writ­ing is con­stantly sen­si­tive to char­ac­ter and de­tail. A mother’s watch­ful­ness is evoked per­fectly: “She owned copies of our minds in the pock­ets of her own mind.” A boy’s fall down a well is re­mem­bered as “tear­ing his eardrums apart like an an­tique veil”.

Each chap­ter is struc­tured around a guiding metaphor, nearly al­ways an­i­mal or in­sect in

May 23-24, 2015 The Fish­er­men By Chigozie Obioma Scribe, 293pp, $29.99 Shame By Me­lanie Finn Wei­den­feld & Ni­chol­son, 319pp, $29.99 Wolf, Wolf By Eben Ven­ter Scribe, 263pp, $29.99 na­ture (“Mother was a fal­coner”, “Hope was a tadpole”) and the writ­ing soars on th­ese rich, vi­brant con­ceits. With­out over­play­ing the sense of a “prim­i­tive” Africa, it’s a writ­ing that is nonethe­less deeply at­tuned to the world of an­i­mals, myth and na­ture.

Much of the novel’s power de­rives from the sense of Akure as some­how di­vorced from the larger world. Po­lit­i­cal and civil un­rest ar­rive like bad news from an­other town, threat­en­ing a frag­ile child­hood. This sense of a slight di­vorce from re­al­ity lends the novel’s slow de­scent into doom gen­uine force — this is a world of towntalk, ru­mour, fa­ble. The metaphors aren’t merely lit­er­ary show­man­ship but a lan­guage founded on a real, ev­ery­day life.

The choice of nar­ra­tor, and the sweep­ing power of his voice, is an­other mi­nor tri­umph. At first Benjamin seems like a cu­ri­ous guide in this world, more ob­server than par­tic­i­pant, un­til it be­comes clear his unique sta­tus al­lows an enor­mous flex­i­bil­ity as events un­fold and the youngest child moves, in the novel’s fi­nal third, from wit­ness to key player.

It feels al­most churl­ish to com­plain about a book so well writ­ten, and promis­ing so much from a first-time au­thor, but what it lacks, per­haps, is what Abulu curses the novel with: mad­ness, ter­ror, fear. Obioma, Nige­rian-born and living in the US, is a prod­uct of the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan’s cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram, and there are times when it feels just like the kind of work the rigour of such a sys­tem gen­er­ates: bal­anced, lus­trous, but al­most too worked. There’s a com­po­sure in the book’s fi­nal third that is at times un­nec­es­sary, too con­sis­tent with the more idyl­lic open­ing, as if the prose it­self were afraid to crack or lose its com­po­sure.

An­other kind of style is ev­i­dent in Me­lanie Finn’s Shame. Loosely speak­ing, it’s the slightly pur­ple, ca­su­ally over­writ­ten kind that aims for ef­fect but can turn pon­der­ous all too eas­ily. This is un­for­tu­nate, as there’s an in­trigu­ing story try­ing to work its way out from un­der some cu­ri­ous over­writ­ing.

The novel de­tails a woman’s ex­ile to Tan­za­nia, where she hopes to find a new life away from Switzer­land, her hus­band’s in­fi­delity and, most trag­i­cally of all, a car ac­ci­dent that leaves her re­spon­si­ble for the death of three chil­dren. In its short, sin­gle-scene chap­ters, and in the tog­gling be­tween flash­backs to the woman’s early life and the cur­rent African mo­ment, the in­flu­ence of an­other form is ob­vi­ous: cinema.

The struc­ture is ini­tially com­pelling, but as the book pro­gresses it be­gins to grate. The rhythm is bro­ken by th­ese con­stant skips back and forth, and the solemn curlicues that fre­quently end each sec­tion begin to feel need­lessly pon­der­ous. When at a later point in the novel we re­visit the ac­ci­dent, now drama­tised rather than al­luded to, over­writ­ing takes over, and we de­scend into melo­drama (“the wires con­nect­ing her to heaven re­trieve her and she dis­ap­pears from me”). Some mea­sure of re­straint is re­quired, but florid­ity takes over.

Stylis­tic de­ci­sions be­devil the book, the prose of­ten gussied up for no rea­son other than be­ing “strik­ing” (“facts slipped from my hands, swam away like eels”). At other times, cliches (“lone­li­ness com­ing off her in waves”) deaden the work.

Mat­ters aren’t helped by the fact Finn’s nar­ra­tor, the un­for­tu­nately named Pil­grim Jones, is a re­mote and un­en­gag­ing pres­ence, de­fined by her sor­row but leav­ing lit­tle mark in a reader’s mind be­yond her tragic sit­u­a­tion. Finn has first-hand knowl­edge of Tan­za­nia, and its por­trait of a com­pro­mised po­lice force and a dis­parate col­lec­tion of ex­pats feels con­vinc­ing, but th­ese are mi­nor plea­sures.

In­trigu­ingly, the novel’s fi­nal third breaks from its to-and-fro struc­ture en­tirely, and a whole new book ar­rives, with other char­ac­ters tak­ing over the story, still con­nected to the pro­tag­o­nist but with a quid­dity all their own. Some

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