Reviewed by Dami Ajayi
Monday, September 2, 2013.
There is no longer any such thing like fiction or non-fiction; there’s only a narrative. This were the exact words of E.L Doctorow, a reputable American author which holds true in The Abyssinian Boy, the debut effort of Onyeka Nwelue, one of the youngest novelists Nigeria can boast of.
It is startlingly remarkable that Mr Nwelue penned this manuscript before age twenty, a time when his peers were probably beleaguered by the consequences of hormonal fluctuations and bothered decisively with trendy ways of combating them and asserting themselves as a generation with a difference.
Even more remarkable is the fact that at such a nascent stage, Mr Nwelue could dip his imaginations in the dyes of reality so much so that what he achieves is refreshingly familiar. The streets he describes, the people that populate his fictional world and even the emotional concerns of his characters are so real that his characters could be our next door neighbours. His fiction is indeed a potent and genuine remake of reality which can neither be centrifuged nor decanted by analysis.
A part of this novel unfurls in India, in fact it in India we get to meet our characters in their “usual state”, before the conflict, the essence of the story, creeps in. This part of the novel is an amazing love song of India. The author takes the readers on a virtual tour of the aesthetics of second most populous nation, romanticizing even its dregs in crisply prose. Easily, this part of the novel evokes colorful scenes from a Bollywood flick in the reader’s mind. And it’s not surprising that the author wrote a decent helping of his manuscript in India and his narrative must have roused by familiar sensations.
The major characters are the members of an “international” family comprising of a South Indian essayist, his East Nigerian wife and their half-caste nine-year old son, David. The most toward action in the novel’s plot is a visit to the wife’s home country Nigeria by the family and their encounters thereafter. Through Mr Nwelue’s ornate and sometimes faltering narrative, we plumb the detail of their lives. We see their imperfectness, their mistakes, misgivings, misadventures and even the weird relatives with whom they co-exist idyllically.
We delve into their past often to relive their experiences, sometimes immaterial to the denouement, but all the same experiences thrust at us by the author’s prerogative. We traipse through refreshing anecdotes and comic vignettes that are perhaps posers of the author’s overseas experience.
The voice through which this story is told is controlled. And convincing. One sees Mr Nwelue toeing the lines of great predecessors like Amos Tutuola in his attempt to birth a language for his works. Even though one is not particularly convinced that he achieves this in The Abyssinian Boy, but one can be sure he setting a template which would become a centerpiece attraction of his later fictional endeavours.
The syntax gives this work the nuanced feel of work in translation and the liberty with which the author dealt his expressions might herald a new trend in sentence constructions. However the hyphenated depictions of expressions that were supposedly descriptions in this novel—you-are-very-stupid –and-hopeless-eyes, so-what eyes—heaps on the reader’s plate of humor but are puerile nonetheless. Encountering invented adverbs like Neverthemore is shocking but hints readers as to the poetic license the author has compelled into his prose.
More than anything, the thematic concerns enjoy a multiplicity which those not correlate with length of the prose. Often, it seemed like the author’s artistic attempt to flare his connoisseurship and grant opinions on pertinent issues that have garnered cultural concerns and had become denominators cutting across humanity. However these issues were tackled fleetingly and often leave the reader with opinionated rather than holistic insights.
Colourful characters also abound in this novel. Easily the narrative becomes a marketplace where all sort of characters are introduced, perhaps in an attempt to achieve a sub-plot, which doesn’t entirely work into the “big” narrative. These characters, with peculiar idiosyncrasies and sometimes phonations, interact with themselves and grapple a cast of human conditions such as religion, sexuality, cuisines, amongst other cultural concerns.
Also are the mystic overtones that lend the magical realism tag this novel sometimes bear from previous reviews. The recruitment of Nfanfa, an imaginary albino dwarf that fuels David’s hallucination is reminiscent of similar illusionary characters in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, another first novel by another remarkable young Nigerian that dwells on homecoming and the troubles thereafter.
Mr Nwelue, no doubt, has penned a moving tale that underscores the issues of racial integration and culture clash. He has shown his promise and his flair as one of the important emerging contenders of the Great Nigeria Novel and readers can still expect the masterpiece tucked up his sleeves.
The Abyssinian Boy is published by Dada Books and available on amazon at this web-link - http://www.amazon.ca/The-Abyssinian-Boy-ebook/dp/B005HAE7ZC
Dami Ajayi is a medical doctor, creative writer and a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine Saraba.