Out of Africa, three approaches to fiction
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