Sto­ries so var­ied in style and con­text they could have been writ­ten by three au­thors

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW -

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.

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