The Day Ends Like Any Day
In 1990s Nigeria, Sam, a young man, begins his life’s journey in O. situated east of Port Harcourt; as the “lazy stroller” he calls himself, he moves constantly in and out of the text in a cinematographic way. He introduces us to Pa Suku, Ma Ike, Ricia, Dora, Osagie, Margaret and all the other characters that mark his path. From the small crowded flat in which he lives with his family to the Delta State University in Abraka he later attends, Sam’s excursion through life guides the reader through past (the Biafran war and some events occuring back then) and present (President Sani Abacha’s years).
Timothy Ogene’s beautiful novel is a new form of Bildungsroman, in which the theme of coming of age becomes a coming of language: Sam’s story is also a journey through books and memories, so much so that a life’s journey is not only oriented forwards, but also backwards.
Like Sam, the reader is constantly going back and forth to the past through words and the images and sometimes the physical sensations they leave in our lives. As the title suggests, the days become not a flow of time-limited sequences, but an eternal present that shrinks or expands through the power of our own mind.
Ogene revisits the age-old theme of identity and transposes it into a world in which identities are constantly rooted out to be planted elsewhere, both never really free from their native soil and enriched by the foreign adoptive soils. The founding encounters in Sam’s life are also the encounters with his own past and his old self, now reshaped and revisited by the passing of time and the inevitable questioning of what life actually means:
“Old Jumbo’s flowers were not as unkempt as I remember them. (…) State School One was east of the blocks. But in my head, in my recollection, it is positioned west. What else do I misremember? (…) It does not matter anymore. I remember what I remember, or what I consistently made myself remember. We are, indeed, wired to remember in twos: duplicates and originals. The original loses its composition the farther away we are from it.” (p.145)
Haunting Identity in The Icarus Girl
Then, without opening her eyes, she was caught in the crisp outward shattering of glass as the mirror crack’d from side to side, fying out of its flame. At the centre of it all was TillyTilly, manically screaming : ‘Seven years’ bad luck ! Seven years’ bad luck ! SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK !
“What are you ?” Jess cried out from her safe place.
Tilly’s reply : “I don’t know ! You know ! You know ! “
8 years-old, sensitive, moody, very imaginative, Jessamy Harrison she feels constantly alone and unadapted. Bullied by her schoolmates and sometimes misunderstood by her mother, Jessamy cannot find a place of her own and a person to get along with. But eveything changes when goes to Nigeria to visit her mother’s family. From the extreme heat to the Yoruba language, Jessamy discovers a new, mysterious world which is also hers, paradoxically, and which will show her another perspective on herself and her life.
Jessamy receives a new, Yoruba name, Wuraola, to connect her to the cultural heritage and make her ‘become’ Yoruba. After receiving this name, Jessamy meets Titiola, a Yoruba girl her age with whom she finally seems to resonate. As the story moves on, the reader grows sceptical about Titiola’s intentions (as she is both very kind and very provoking and mean) and starts to question her very existence, until the friendship between the two girls provokes damage and crisis in Jessamy’s family.
Inspired by both English classical gothic stories and Yoruba traditional tales about the double identity of twins, Oyeyemi’s first novel makes the reader question not just “who is who” (Jessamy being also a mixed race), but also why it is so complicated sometimes to understand and accept who we are and why we are this or that way. The cultural difference between the Yoruba town and London, the two languages eventually becomes an extra obstacle to get over for Jessamy, who is already not at ease with her own unsociability.
The ending, however, accounts not only for a major change of perspective on her mother’s family and, therefore, on her own origins, but also on what growing up really means; much more than a modern allegory about cultural tensions, it is accepting some difficult realities about oneself, like fears likely to turn into haunting ghosts, that becomes one of the major lessons of Oyeyemi’s novel.
Omi-Ala was a dreadful river. Long forsaken by the inhabitants of Akure town like a mother abandoned by her children.… It surrounded Akure like ans snaked through its length and breadth. Like many such rivers in Africa, Omi-Ala was once believed to be a god: people worshipped it.…) This changed when the colonists came from Europe [and] began to see it as an evil place.
It became the source of dark rumours. One such rumour was that people committed all sorts of fetish ritual on its banks…. Incident after incident accumulated over many years, tainting the history of the river and corrupting its name so much so that- in time- its mere mention of it triggered disdain.
Thus begins the story of four brothers, Ikenna, Boje, Obembe and Benjamin, told by the last. Like all storytellers, Benjamin sets the atmosphere, the tone, the characters and the plot. The listeners, more than the readers, have no other choice than to submit to his charming story.
Benjamin, the narrator’s alter ego and author, Obioma’s persona, narrates the dissolution of his family from the moment Ikenna, the elder brother, decides to fish in the forbidden river. Abulu, the fool of the village, happens to be in the vicinity and predicts that he will die by the hand of one of his brothers.
The narrative voice creates a surrealist story woven by childhood, temptation, adventure and madness. The dissolution of the family is inevitable and tragedy seems to form a snow-ball effect in their lives. In the 1990s Nigeria, in a context of political and social tension, the story of Benjamin’s family works both as a mirror and as an allegory of human life and struggle through History and personal fate.
The construction of the plot is inspired by African tales and fables: each chapter is woven around an image (the river, the spiders) which leads the listener (and the reader) to the grand finale. Obioma’s great first novel, much acclaimed on the international stage, reveals human madness, ill-doings and immense tolerance wrapped in a brilliant tale.