i was very glad to win this book through the firstreads program because i was kind of shocked to realize, when i was writing my gr year in review, how long it had been since i’d read an african novel. the pace of my purchasing them has not slowed, but i’m not really reading the books i buy anymore because i’ve foolishly made promises to authors, publishers, friends, netgalley & etc and the books i buy just kinda sit there waiting for me to honor my commitments and return to them. winning this put it in the “deadline – read now” pile, so while i still have plenty of books glowering at me, at least i’m getting back into african lit.
unfortunately, this wasn’t the triumphant return i’d hoped for.
ile’s a good writer, so i would be very happy to try another book by him, but this story and these characters didn’t worm their way into me.
what i did like was that while the premise of this novel is the 1995 disappearance of seventeen-year-old paul utu from his home in nigeria, because of the structure of the story – looping as it does back and forth through time, through the p.o.v. of paul’s younger brother ajie, paul is actually present for most of the book. this decision allows the story to transcend the done-to-death scope of the missing person/grieving novel; instead it showcases paul’s life before his disappearance, highlighting “what was lost” rather than “loss” itself.
Now, this was what Ajie wanted, this way that Paul had of becoming something after he had read about it; this way he had of claiming things for himself. He had joined himself to a we, an us. A corrupt official had been exposed in the papers for misappropriating pension funds, and Paul was expressing betrayal, even anger, about it.
How do you make yourself do that? How do you learn how to work yourself up over something that’s not directly your concern?
this is a coming-of-age novel for ajie, growing up in a postcolonial nigeria caught between tradition and modernity, outgrowing itself too quickly, where change and violence are inseparable.
ajie has to navigate all the typical obstacles of growing up and becoming a participant of the world, as well as the additional pressures trickling down into his relatively well-off family from forces they can neither control nor anticipate. he looks up to paul, and looks at the world around him. he doesn’t always understand the importance of what he witnesses, or see the line underscoring events that will eventually culminate in his brother’s disappearance, but he’s a good observer for the reader, who has the luxury of the bigger picture.
it’s a good family drama, but it’s too small to satisfactorily cover as much social and political turmoil as it attempts and it ends up reading like a superficial highlights reel of nigerian troubles. the family saga is slow and drawn out and the background unrest feels rushed and shallow by comparison.
but i’ll happily give this author another shot, because his writing (particularly in the backstory of the parents) can be both graceful and severe, which got my attention even if the book as a whole didn’t destroy me.