on January 8th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Agbatta-Alumalu, the fathers of old say that without light, a person cannot sprout shadows. My host fell in love with this woman. She came as a strange, sudden light that caused shadows to spring from everything else.
Wow. How do I even begin to review this book? All words seem inadequate. It is exceptional. It is beautiful. And it is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
It’s challenging, too. I don’t
want to sell it to readers who won’t like it. It’s a clever and dense
literary work, heavily influenced by Nigerian cosmology. It takes some
time to settle into the unusual narration – the story is narrated by
Chinonso’s chi (a kind of guardian spirit) – but once I did, I could not
put it down.
She poked her hand into the dark and secret places of his life and touched everything in it. And in time, she became the thing his soul had been yearning after for years with tears in its eyes.
The strength of this novel, I feel, is that it is fundamentally an old and universal tale. A tale of a poor man who falls for a woman above his station and will do anything within his power to please her family and earn the right to be with her. These familiar concepts are given a distinctly Nigerian spin, making it stand out from the stories that have come before it.
As I said, it can be a tough read. The characters often switch between Nigerian Pidgin, untranslated Igbo, and the “language of the White man”, but it is impressive how easily I understood everything without knowing a word of Igbo. I guess a huge part of it is the way that the author – through the chi – constructs each scene.
But it’s tough for another reason,
too. The chi’s wisdom and wit add warmth to the story, but there is no
disguising the fact that this is a dark book, full of tragedy and
misfortune, including one instance of on-page rape. There is one
particularly tragic event – you will know the one I mean – and it is
made all the more disturbing because it is so obvious. The reader sees
it coming long before Nonso does, and the way Obioma leads us up to the
inevitable made me deeply anxious and upset. It is painful to witness.
Guardian spirits of mankind, have we thought about the powers that passion creates in a human being?
We are told in the beginning that Nonso’s chi has come to plead for his host before the supreme Igbo god, Chukwu. We know instantly that this kind, laid-back farmer’s life is about to unravel. And yet this, somehow, makes it all the more tense when we are led on the journey to find out what happened to him.
Gorgeous descriptions, Nigerian mythology, a love story that rips your heart out, and a complex and fascinating protagonist who we want so very very much to succeed— all these things await the reader who picks up this book. If any book deserves to become a “classic”, then An Orchestra of Minorities certainly does.