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  1. My Sister The Serial Killer is a lively novel set in modern, middle class Nigeria. Korede narrates the story, explaining how she has to clear up the mess left by her sister Ayoola as her relationships end in ever more gory circumstances. At first, the killings might seem plausible; Ayoola might have ended up in difficult situations that went wrong. But as the novel proceeds, the justifications become ever-more sketchy and the situations look ever-more avoidable. In between the killings, we get a picture of Korede as an over-protective, jealous sister who pretends to have reconciled herself to being the less attractive of the sisters. There are all sorts of catty, cutting comments about Ayoola and the advantages that her good looks bring her. Meanwhile, Korede is keen that we should know that anything she herself might lack in looks, she more than makes up for in guile. This is all presented against a vivid depiction of modern Lagos where education is the key to a bright future but where witchcraft bubbles along not far beneath the surface. There is a humour (much of it pretty black) running through the narrative. The key point of intrigue, though, is trying to work out whether Korede is a reliable narrator, trying to extricate Ayoola from her various misdeeds, or whether Korede is an unreliable narrator with a much more sinister gameplan. These two alternative readings seem equally valid and are never resolved... My Sister is a short, quick read that should leave most readers pretty satisfied. ****0
  2. Speak No Evil is a difficult read but well worth the effort. Niru is a final-year high schooler in Washington DC. His parents are ambitious, wealthy Nigerians for whom appearances matter. They live in the best neighbourhood, rub shoulders with Washington's movers and shakers, invest in art - but still hanker after the old country and their corrupt relatives. Niru himself is athletic and bright, holds an early offer for Harvard, and the future is his for the taking. In a coming of age story, Niru finds himself adored by his classmate Meredith, but is unable to reciprocate. Niru faces up to the fact that he is not a ladies' man and, encouraged by Meredith, he starts to explore his sexuality. This does not sit well with Niru's family culture. The first two thirds of the book is narrated by Niru. His voice is fantastic, wise, witty but always conscious of the unwritten limitations imposed on people with brown skin. He portrays individuality and ambition in a society where he knows people of colour are perceived to be homogenous. he accepts the respect of his classmates for his ability but knows he will never achieve their friendship. We share Niru's frustration, but also feel frustration at his acceptance of the limitations it imposes. We also sense his rebellion against the culture to which his parents adhere. Niru has a conflict between his own westernisation and a world that is unwilling to accept it. The final third of the book is narrated by Meredith, whose voice is less compelling. Meredith is white and her family is privileged; her father hankers after a seat in the Supreme Court. But her family finds itself at odds with the new values introduced by President 45. Her narrative is a rage against the world, especially the world that is being built in Washington right at the moment. She is angry at the level of acceptance of injustice and at the way she is compelled to play a role in that world based on her race and her wealth. The novel is particularly challenging to read because it eschews traditional narrative and traditional dialogue. Time jumps around. Parts are written in the here and now; then there will be a jump over a significant time period whose events we must infer from future narrative. Conversation is not reported with traditional punctuation, making it hard to follow, especially when occasionally blended with Nigerian patois. It is hard to grasp the significance of major plot details delivered as single references in what appears to be throwaway dialogue. However, it is worth coming to the novel with a clear head to follow the plot - the effort really does repay itself. The language and imagery are brilliant, Iweala creates a world with perfection. Much of the imagery centres around colour, particularly black and white, light and dark. The political messages from the book are loud and clear . When Meredith's narrative takes over, sometimes the messages are too clear, being contained in sections of polemic. That is a bit if a shame after Niru's gentle narrative where the reader is trusted to draw his or her own conclusions from the events and ideas. The Achilles Heel of the book, though, is the pacing and structure. Essentially the denouement comes at the one third mark; the rest feels like a really padded "what happened next" section that you get at the end of some TV movies. Parts of it are necessary to give a second perspective on Niru and his family - but perhaps some other structure could have left the emotional punch to near the end. The actual ending, when we get there, feels anti-climactic. So Speak No Evil is a short, literary novel that has much to commend it, but it just doesn't feel quite as satisfying as the ideas and writing talent had led this reader to expect. Still very much worth picking up, but five stars have become only three and a half. ***1/2
  3. Like a Mule is a beautifully crafted novella about ageing and loss of control. Dr Morayo Da Silva is an elderly Nigerian woman, living in San Francisco after a lifetime of reading, exploration and a failed marriage to a diplomat. She is wealthy and classy. She is used to being in control and tends to look disdainfully on those who lack her sophistication. Morayo is kind, yes, but also deeply judgemental. So it is a shock to her system to find herself in hospital, dependent on the kindness of those she might once have been able to take pity on - the single mothers, nurses, porters and people she never even meets. The real joy in the novella is Sarah Ladipo Manyika's ability to create a world from a single line. A line about books, perhaps, or art, or furniture is able to tell the reader so much about Morayo's life and values and prejudices. Every line is crafted so carefully and reads so perfectly. The narration does strange things. Different characters take it in turns to narrate chapters - a divide that is not clearly flagged and can lead to some puzzlement initially. Even stranger is that the narration can change hands within chapters. It i therefore not always clear who is narrating and about whom they are speaking. This builds up a feeling of a world that is harder to control - just as Morayo is finding herself helpless within her own world. And like Morayo, the reader has a choice of fighting it or going along with it smiling. I chose the latter. Like a Mule is a referential novel, referencing much of African culture, literature and art. It portrays Nigeria as a vibrant society; Lagos is a city that Morayo misses despite having achieved wealth and comfort in San Francisco. It is refreshing to see a character who is proud to be African and who is able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of her new homeland. Some of the references may be lost on readers who are unfamiliar with Nigerian culture (the title, for example, comes from a poem whose relevance is not obvious) but there is so much joy to be had in the writing even without getting every reference. This is short - and probably merits a second read. *****
  4. Ifiok is a journalist at a government radio station in Lagos, Nigeria. He has a lovely girlfriend, Yetunde, dreams of entering his radio series The River into the BBC Africa drama competition and his boss seems to like him. He seems well set up. From a narrative perspective, this allows Ifiok to travel freely around the city, observing different vignettes of everyday life - whether in big business or dramas on the street with begging scams and petty thievery. Ifiok himself is part of the emergent middle class, dining in restaurants and buying Yetunde designer dresses, but not in the same league as the army generals driving around in their high black people carriers. And these vignettes are well told, colourful and often amusing. What is lacking, though, is an over-arching narrative thread. At first it looks as though it might be a quest for funding for The River as government funding for it is cut. This could have lead to all sorts of nefarious schemes and scams, motivated by some form of community spirit. But the story line fizzles out. Instead, Ifiok returns to his family home in the oilfields and has a think about his love life. It feels like the wrong choice of narrative direction. Nevertheless, this is a colourful, entertaining and short read. Three and a half stars perhaps nudging slightly on the side of four. ****0
  5. Welcome to Lagos. Is there a city in the world that offers a more improbable welcome? This is a comic satire on the corruption, poverty and violence of modern Nigeria. We see all of Nigeria’s ills paraded through the lens of Chike and Yemi, soldiers who have deserted in disillusionment at being asked to torch a village and shoot the fleeing villagers. With no plan, they head into the jungle, rescue a couple of runaways (a chancer called Fineboy and a young woman called Isoken) and head off for Lagos. Along the way, they pick up three more runaways. Collectively, in spite of each other, they end up on a venture to create a better city. The novel contrasts the wealth and the poverty in Nigeria. On the one hand, we see the wealthy ruling class, living off oil revenues and graft, buying multiple mansions around the world. And then we have people living in shanties, under bridges, fishing and bathing in human waste. We have those sent off to study internationally contrasted with those in rural areas in schools with no equipment and whose teachers seldom bother coming in to work. Our heroic seven span this spectrum of wealth and education. They are thrown together by circumstance and unlikely plot twists enable them to sample life at each of their different levels. They adjust to their rapid changes of fortune with varying degrees of success, but in the process they have to re-base their opinions of one another. The novel proceeds at a lively pace. There are short chapters, led, in the middle section of the novel, by articles snipped from the Nigerian Journal. These touch on the subsequent chapters with greater or lesser degrees of obliqueness, often displaying the kind of folksy wonder at modern technology. There is a fair use of Nigerian language – probably both Yoruba and Igbo, but I am no expert. And some of the English language dialogue is written in Nigerian pidgin. This can be disconcerting at first, but after a while it just becomes part of the fabric. The reader is given a good Cook’s tour of Lagos and the wider Niger delta, visiting different neighbourhoods, villages, international hotels, offices and mansions. It creates a picture of a vibrant, multi-cultural union of nations, full of surprises and way more colourful than non-Nigerian readers might expect. Whilst the individual characters of the novel may be a bit cartoony, together they combine to create a city (and a nation) that is complex and three dimensional; viewed from multiple perspectives. It is almost a character in its own right and fully justifies the title of the novel. Welcome to Lagos. ****0
  6. The Fishermen was a swan: A swan that was an ugly duckling for the first half, then blooming into a beautiful bird in the second half. The novel follows a pretty tight formula, opening with an animal or bird related metaphor that often feels like a stretch, followed by a story that is told in a strangely jerky way – a fact or event is dropped into the conversation, followed by a long explanation of how this fact or event came to pass. The novel is supposedly narrated by Ben, a young Nigerian man relating events from his childhood. The timelines become clearer at the end, but it is obvious that Ben is not narrating with the voice of a ten year old. The story is that Ben and his four brothers (and baby sister) live in a regional town in Nigeria; their father is a bank manager who is posted to a town some nine hours’ drive away, leaving the boys in the charge of their mother. Mother is too busy to keep a close watch, so the boys wag off school and go fishing by the river instead. There they meet the local madman, who prophesies bad things… Whilst this is a plot driven novel – at least, it is once the story actually starts to take off at the half way mark – it is also one of the strange blend of modern life, Western values and traditional superstition that one finds in West Africa. Hence, we find Nigerian boys brought up in a middle class family, playing computer games, going off to the hotel to watch football games on big screen TV, avoiding their western education – but also living in fear of ghosts, magic and fate, and wishing they could become fishermen. As young boys, perhaps it is natural that they see no contradiction in these concepts. But their father seems to accept them too. This is not necessarily saying that this is solely a plotty novel or that it should be. It is a novel that does offer an insight into childhood and does offer an insight into life in relatively recent history in Nigeria. For the most part, it avoids easy clichés and predictable stereotypes. The characters demonstrate rational behaviour (except the madman, naturally) and seem credible. Having said that, the mother is under-developed as a character, and with the exception of the oldest brother, Ikenna, the boys are hard to tell apart. The novel also avoids being preachy or wholesome; there is no moral at the end of the story and no cutesy folk wisdom. It’s perhaps rather obvious to compare The Fishermen to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, particularly given Obioma’s heavy references to Achebe’s masterpiece seeming to invite the comparison. Sure, The Fishermen does show an overlay of a different value system on recognisable events. But unlike Things Fall Apart, the “purity” of the Igbo culture has long been diluted into a westernised culture, leaving the boys out of step with society as they address their problems by asking “what would Okonkwo do?” My problem with the novel is one of pacing. There is a big thing that happens at the 50% mark, just like the “How To Write A Novel” textbook suggests. But, this big thing is not the natural half-way point; if anything, it is the catalyst from which the story follows. Thus, we have extensive backstory and meandering, seemingly just to fill pages until things can get interesting. There is repetition, waffle and padding. There are riots and political visits that add to the colour, but don’t add much to the story. It feels slow and whilst the writing is often good enough to dissuade the reader from putting the book down, it is not enough to persuade the reader to pick the book back up once it has been set down. The reward for sticking it out, though, is a pacey and exciting second half in which some (but not all) of the background gives the context. Overall, it’s a novel that is good to have read, even if it didn’t always feel good during the reading. ***00
  7. Laura Curtis’s father has died. His car ran off the road and down the cliff. He had lost all his money trying to help a Nigerian girl in distress… As Laura unpicks the details, sifts through the e-mails, she is horrified at what she sees. It’s never quite clear whether she mourns her father or his money, but she is definitely at grief central. And so she arrives in Lagos on a mission. Meanwhile, we follow two stories in Nigeria. On the one hand, we have Winston, an internet scammer. Winston is articulate, personable and operates with a very warped sense of morality. He believes he has a right to take the mugus’ money. And the third main story is Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son who has been displaced by oil workers and winds up as a back-up driver on a lorry trip up north. On the way, he meets a pregnant woman and his life is changed irrevocably. Inevitably, the stories tie together. The plot is taught and writhes like a snake. But it is the characterisation that shines. Each character has strengths, weaknesses and flaws. The reader’s sympathies change, lighting on one character for a while until reminded of the alternative perspective, or that character’s place in the wider scheme of things. There is a strong sense of place, too. Nigeria feels real, large and complex. It is not just a den of thieves, there are real, decent people trying to earn a living. There is wealth and there are natural resources. Lagos becomes real – has suburbs and a history. 419 is a complex, well thought out novel that leaves a deep emotional imprint. It is written with panache. There is a visible narrator engaging in little asides to the reader, teasing and tantalising. Right from the start, as Henry Curtis dies, the prospect of a satisfactory resolution is lost. Will Ferguson nevertheless pulls off a stylish ending, even if it leaves the reader feeling rather hollow. *****
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