I read this quickly, and digested it slowly. While I read it, though, I jotted down two words – ‘strangeness’ and ‘simplicity’.
Starting with the first: For me, a lot of the power of this story is derived from its differences to what I normally read. Set entirely in a small town in Nigeria, it achieves what I think is a studied simplicity of language and themes, without ever itself becoming simplistic.
The story is mainly domestic; four teenage and almost-teenage brothers take advantage of their father working away from home, and they go fishing, which he would never have let them do. They meet the local madman, Abulu, who makes a prophecy that leads to conflict between the eldest and the others. The conflict feels minor, resolvable, but Abulu’s prophecies have a habit of coming true, and so adolescent energy mingles with fear, and bad things start to happen. It’s a testament to the strength of the plotting that, despite this simplicity, the events feel inevitable as they unfold.
I think I said about ‘Lila’ that it could have been set at almost any time in the hundred years preceding it; this feels the same, so much so that the occasional reminder of its 1990s setting – the references to the Atlanta Olympics, the Nigerian football team, computer games – are jarring. That feels intentional, and maybe not so much a result of chronological distance as of cultural difference. From the superstitions and stories surrounding Abulu, the trickster, to the fable-like telling of the story of the brothers, to the language itself, we are constantly reminded that this story draws on a cultural tradition that doesn’t have its roots in western Europe. For example, this passage on language:
’Aside from this, Mother said all else in English instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure. English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.’
This pulled the ground from under my feet, alright. A really impressive debut, and – in my opinion – not a bad pick for the shortlist.