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Category Archive for 'Nigeria'

Nigeria in the 1990s, the setting for this novel, was a police state of such sadistic violence, with human rights abuses so staggering, that the country was expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations, and virtually every other country had sanctions against it. Focusing primarily on Lomba, a journalist and frustrated novelist, who, in the opening chapter is a starving political prisoner in a Lagos jail, author Helon Habila jumps back and forth in time, introducing us in succeeding chapters to the lives of ordinary citizens of Lagos, men and women, including Lomba himself, living on Poverty Street, trying to maintain some semblance of hope in an increasingly hopeless world. Lomba, jailed for two years without a trial as the novel opens, has gone beyond anger, which he describes as “the baffled prisoner’s attempt to re-crystallize his slowly dissolving self,” and entered “a state of tranquil acceptance” of his fate. When the jailer finds the poems and journal entries he has written and hidden, he persuades Lomba to write some love poems for the better-educated woman he is courting. A brief ray of hope flickers when the woman recognizes Lomba’s cryptic messages and comes to the prison to meet him.

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Twelve-year-old Blessing and her fourteen-year-old brother Ezekiel find their comfortable lives in suburban Lagos dramatically changed when their parents suddenly separate and they must follow their mother to her native village, a tiny community near Warri in the Niger Delta. There they find life completely different—no electricity, no generator, no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no running water or flush toilets, no separate bedrooms, and a school system that uses harsh corporal punishment for the most minor of infractions. Living in a small house with their grandparents, while their mother takes the only job she can get at a bar at the nearby oil company compound, Blessing and Ezekiel quickly learn what it is like having almost no money while living in an area with some of the richest oil deposits in the world. The profits from this incredible resource are unavailable to ordinary Nigerians who live on top of these deposits, and it is these local residents who must cope with the fatal pollution of the Niger Delta–the largest wetland area in the world. Though the novel starts slowly, with its emphasis on developing character and setting, it becomes, eventually, a series of interconnected episodes which illustrate the problems of the country, as Blessing, Ezekiel, and their mother Timi try to find happiness in their new life.

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Eight-year-old Jessamy Harrison, the daughter of a Nigerian mother and a British father, has a particularly difficult time deciding who she is, and she seems to fit in nowhere. Significant emotional problems leave her unable to deal with the outside world, and she can spend five or more hours hiding in the family’s linen closet, attempting to find some sort of “fragile peace” in the tumult which she sees as her life. Given to uncontrollable screaming fits, both at home and at school, she also falls ill, sometimes with high fevers, has panic attacks, and often talks to herself. A psychological horror story, the novel provides plenty of intense scenes, somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and the battle for Jess’s soul is dramatic and action-packed. The conclusion feels somewhat artificial, since it relies on accident and is not the inevitable outgrowth of the actions of a rounded character, but Oyeyemi has created a page-turner that dares to be different.

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