Stories so varied in style and context they could have been written by three authors
The young woman spent two days in labour before tribesmen snatched away her baby twins — “faces painted white and eyes that were hard and vacant”. The practice of killing twins — which still goes on in remote parts of Nigeria — is explored by Melatu Uche Okorie in her short story The Egg Broke.
Okorie (inset), whom Roddy Doyle had a hand in discovering, is a rich and travelled new voice in Irish fiction.
There are just three stories in this slim first collection, but the stories are so different in style and context they might have been written by three different authors. What they do share is an emotional restraint and a piercing eye for detail.
The Egg Broke, set somewhere in Nigeria at the turn of the last century, takes us into a community of mud huts, where superstitions reign.
The setting is remote, but the theocratic control over women and their babies, not so much. The brutal infanticide, based on a tale the author heard from her mother, is brought home to us: “I have walked fearlessly through great forests, crossed deep rivers and marched into sacred places, my breasts heavy with milk and a mix of their blood and mine dripping down my legs.”
The title story, This Hostel Life, takes the form of a breezy report, as told by a Congolese narrator in a mix of Congolese, Nigerian and pidgin English patois. True to life, little happens: she and a flurry of other females almost come to blows over a jar of honey.
This remarkable story lets us listen in on the banter and gossip and petty squabbles of a host of nations bunged into one accommodation centre — “Those Moslems”, “Dat Cameroon girl”, “we Nigerias”.
The reason it is a work of art and not just a veiled polemic is that it shows us how feelings are complicated, unbiddable things. “I know no why,” writes the narrator, “but me I start to feel sorry for the security man.”
With just three stories, a foreword and an afterword by academic Liam Thornton, This Hostel Life feels like a tease, particularly when we read that more of Okorie’s stories are anthologised elsewhere. But these are troubling glimpses into a system of enforced dependency in which 5,000 men, women and children live today.
We need to share the author’s outrage.