Obioma’s frenetically assured second novel is a spectacular artistic leap forwards. Warm, earnest and often beautiful, The Fishermen was impressive, although its narrative voice was at times too formal to be fully convincing. There is nothing tentative about this new book, a linguistically flamboyant, fast-moving, fatalistic saga of one man’s personal disaster... Few contemporary novels achieve the seductive panache of Obioma’s heightened language, with its mixture of English, Igbo and colourful African-English phrases, and the startling clarity of the dialogue. The story is extreme; yet its theme is a bid for mercy for that most fragile of creatures – a human.
The most powerful sections relate to an Igbo proverb used as an epigraph: “If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the stories of the hunt.” Chinonso’s crescendo of anguish, which involves racist cruelty, is linked to the fate of persecuted minorities, including slaves transported to Virginia (the book’s title translates roughly as the cries of the oppressed). But despite flashes of searing brilliance, most of this novel reads sluggishly — its realist pages pedestrian, its supernatural detours like wading through astral sludge.
Obioma’s prose style is full of grand rococo flourishes, expansive to the point of excess. The chi indulges in copious digressions and many references to ancient wisdom. Quite why it has to explain in detail how the celestial and human spheres work to their Supreme Being is unclear. However, fans of Ben Okri will recognise Obioma’s spirited dedication to remembering old beliefs as western modernity encroaches, and the world he creates is pungently real.
...buried within the extravagance, there is a good, straightforward, very human, often moving and sometimes comic novel with a strong and simple plot... Obioma is very evidently a writer of real talent. I’ve no doubt that this novel will appeal to many and that it will be a great success. It will surely win prizes and there will be chatter about its mythic qualities... I hope that this novel will make him so much money that he can get out of the classroom, and write novels which will delight ordinary readers more than teachers of literature.
Where his Booker-shortlisted debut, The Fishermen, a boyhood adventure in 90s Nigeria, felt like the work of a born storyteller, his new book – a mystical star-crossed romance – is more polished, more painstakingly constructed and harder going, at least to start with.... As in The Fishermen, Obioma’s figurative language is rich and vivid. A bad memory lingers “like insects around a glob of sugarcane, crawling into every crevice of [Nonso’s] mind”. It can be pleasingly literal-sounding – Nonso puts off a difficult conversation by “push[ing] it like a thing with wheels into the future” – as well as comically graphic; Nonso, on telling Ndali’s father what he does for a living, feels like “a man whose extremities were bound and was then thrust naked into the central arena of a village, with nothing to hide himself”.
This second book from the young Nigerian author whose debut, The Fishermen, reached the Man Booker shortlist does not quite escape that difficult second novel syndrome. It’s overlong, raggedly structured and freighted with rambling digressions. Yet almost every page trumpets the gifts of a writer who can make his language soar, wheel and pounce like that pitiless avian deity the hawk, ‘borne on violent wings and merciless talons’....Obioma brings his untiring flair for metaphor and parable, proverb and myth. Pithy images cut through the sprawl and meander. ‘Your ears have been patient,’ our spirit narrator tells his divine listeners. Obioma’s readers will need patient ears as well. He rewards them, though, with the rejuvenating music of his prose.
Like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe before him, Obioma fashions an allegory of post-independence Nigeria and the cruelties of the contemporary world. The prose is over-ripe at times (“even the hems of the garments of his brightest days were fringed with threads of sorrowful darkness”), but no matter. West Africa, with its pantheon of animist divinities and juju lore, is unforgettably evoked. You can almost smell the hot strong breath of the land in this brave gallimaufry of Greek myth and pre-colonial Igbo cosmology. If the writing drags a little towards the end, there is no mistaking its majesty.