Sunday 8 November 2009


Critical Literature Review proudly presents Sylva Ifedigbo, who discusses the début novel of the young Nigerian author Onyeka Nwelue. Enjoy!!!

I recently read the book "The Abyssinian Boy" (TAB) by Onyeka Nwelue. It was a special experience. First, I read an autographed copy of the book…fresh, well bound, beautiful copy, which makes me want to begin by giving some kudos to Dada Book (the publisher) for such a wonderful outing (which is not often seen from publishers here in Nigeria).

The second reason why reading TAB was a special experience is the same reason why I read the 256 paged book for almost two weeks; The story was free flowing, well crafted and filled with hyperboles which all combine to make it an entrapping work of fiction. When I like a book, I don’t rush through it; I take each page at a time…I go back to re-read some pages; I read a page and imagine the scene. That’s why it took me nearly two weeks.

The Abyssinian Boy is about a South Indian essayist and his East Nigerian Christian wife Eunice Onwubiko and the hallucination their nine year-old child faces. The book lays bare the many paradoxes of culture clash with thought provoking and often amusing ironies.

At the center of the tapestry is David the Nine year old son of Rajaswamy Rajagopalan who dies on the way back to Nigeria after a visit by the Indian based family to Nigeria. David’s death which is a consequence of some age old breech of tradition (it self a product of the early church versus native tradition friction in Nigerian villages) that happened many years before David was conceived coincided with the decision of the Nigerian Government by a law of the senate to Send all Indians away from the country.

For me, the first chapter of the book was the clincher. It flows, reveals and keeps the reader turning the pages. It introduces the reader to a typical Indian setting; Indian Names, Indian households, Indian dressing, names of Indian towns and Indian streets. The reader finds himself in New Delhi or inside one of the many popular Bollywood movies. Nwelue (who wrote the first draft of the book in India) shows a keen mastery of India. The conversations and expressions are unmistakably Indian. It is refreshing to read so young a Nigerian writer leaving the comfort zone of writing about Nigeria - the corruption and the fuel queues - and attempting a cross-continental novel. I will say without the fear of contradiction that this was a good first attempt.

I however found to my disappointment that the language of the book is overtly ‘childish’. Perhaps this might be attributed to the age of the writer who was born in 1988 or on the other hand, it may simply be his style of writing. There are some unnecessary details with a lot of “telling” as opposed to “showing”. Some issues simply appear unbelievable. For example, I can’t still come to terms with David’s overwhelming intelligence as can be gleamed from his expressions when he was only nine.

Still on David, the writer shows us in the earlier parts of the book that he had problems with his written English. It is shocking how his letters, as seen in pages 196-198, were so flawless. It leaves a question mark. How come?

One interesting character, “Dada Felicia”, was shown to have mother tongue interference in her spoken English. But the writer slightly over did it in trying to drive this point home. More so, there was no consistency in the presentation of the character’s speech problems. For example, on page 211, there was an outburst from Dada Felicia. Here, pronunciations were okay (including words like “responsible” which should have been a good example of mispronounced words due to language interference). However, on the very next page, we see a miraculous reappearance of the imperfect diction with words like sule (sure) and youl (your). This is either an oversight on the part of the writer and his editors or simply a typographic error.

I have no problems with the introduction of sex, seduction, lesbianism or homosexuality in African literature. If anything, I promote it. But in TAB, I am of the opinion that the writer slightly over did it. It goes without saying that there are gays/lesbians in our society (Nigeria). However, but their activities are not yet as rampant as has been portrayed in TAB and they are not yet as confident or vocal as the characters in TAB were in expressing their sexual orientation. Well, I guess we can condone this, as after all the work is FICTION! Fiction writers don’t owe anyone the duty of presenting issues as it is in reality. Fiction is fiction and that is its essential quality.

That said and taking nothing away from this beautiful piece of creativity, I wish to state that for a debut novel, TAB has made a loud statement and the writer has earned himself a battalion of fans waiting to eat up the next meal he serves. I am one such fan and I think you should pick a copy too.

[Sylva Ifedigbo is a writer and commentator. He contributes to NEXT and maintains a blog at]