Sunday 28 February 2010

Out of the Ashes Arises a Great Writer (Review of “The Phoenix” by Adrian Igoni Barrett)

This week, Critical Literature Review presents Ayodele Morocco-Clarke's review of Nigerian writer Adrian Igoni Barrett's short story titled "The Phoenix" which is published on StoryTime and in 2005 won the BBC Short Story CompetitionCritical Literature Review hopes you enjoy reading the review and hopes it encourages you to read this and other short stories on StoryTime.

I first stumbled on Igoni Barrett’s writings on Laura Hird's website a few years back and swiftly became enamoured with his style of writing after reading stories in the first edition of his short story anthology titled “From Caves of Rotten Teeth” – an almost bizarre title which he derived from a poem by Caribbean painter and poet, Leroy Clarke.

The Phoenix, the story under review, is one of the fourteen stories that comprise the short story collection From Caves of Rotten Teeth. It is also published online on the StoryTime website alongside another of Igoni Barrett’s hilarious short story entitled “Pot Pourri”.

The Phoenix was one of five stories which won the 2005 BBC Short Story Competition and was subsequently broadcast by the BBC in 2006. Reading this story, it is not impossible to see why the judges (Helen Simpson, Brian Chikwava and Romesh Gunesekera) chose it as one of that year’s winning entries.

The Phoenix traces the life of Tartius Abrachius who lost both his arms in a tribal ambush. Usually, such a fate in Nigeria has the effect of reducing the life of the double amputee to one of a beggarly existence, but the determination and resourcefulness of Tartius Abrachius was such that he decided to take on a trade to eke out a living rather than be left at the whims and mercy of oftentimes reluctant benefactors. Surprisingly, armless Tartius Abrachius chose to be a tailor. Not an easy task, but he mastered the art of wielding his scissors, and threading his sewing machine with his feet.

Tartius Abrachius’s profession and art sees him leaving his homeland behind to find better business and fortune in the big city. While there plying his trade, he gathers loyal customers ensuring his daily survival. It is there in the big city that he is reunited with a dream he once had when his limbs had been intact; a dream of playing football. Before his limbs had been severed, Tartius Abrachius could do a mean sprint. In fact it was his running skill that helped in saving his life in the massacre that had cost his companions theirs. These revivified dreams of his and his running prowess take Tartius Abrachius where he never envisaged.

Igoni Barrett delivers a red hot killer twist at the end of this story; a story which had me enthralled when I read it. There are many gems within The Pheonix – and generally within his “From Caves of Rotten Teeth” anthology – which showcase Igoni Barrett not just as an emerging writer to watch out for, but (dare I say) one of the best of the new crop of Nigerian (and indeed African) writers in recent times.

Igoni Barrett displays a visceral knack for bringing his subject-matter and characters to life. Each sentence in the story is well articulated, and apart from the first paragraph detailing Tartius Abrachius’s homeland (which I do not think adds much to the story), each sentence appears to have been pondered over carefully ensuring the overall harmony of the story. There are no sentences which fail to pull their weight; impostors masquerading as friends when indeed they are nothing but foes to the overall yarn.

Some people may describe Igoni Barrett’s style of writing as highfalutin or verbose. I however think that literary connoisseurs will appreciate that he is a writer who has honed his skill carefully, executing his craft with an ease and mastery that can only be admired and/or envied. There were some phrases and sentences that I particularly found poignant; one such line was the following:
But that was the year that destiny intervened, and as no contingency plan of man can salvage a dream that the fates have repudiated, he watched his ambition shrivel and die.”

The foregoing, alongside several visually scrumptious imageries ensures that there is a lot for the reader to enjoy in the story. It is not hard to see what so captivated the BBC Short Story Competition judges about The Phoenix that they adjudged it – above a plethora of other entries – a winner in the competition.

All I can say in conclusion is that I enjoyed reading Igoni Barrett’s The Phoenix. Immensely.

[Ayodele Morocco-Clarke is a Nigerian lawyer and writer of mixed heritage who has a passion for literature. She is the editor of Critical Literature Review and her written works have appeared in Author Africa 2009, Hackwriters (a University of Portsmouth magazine), Sphere Literary MagazineStoryTimeAuthor-Me and on The Clarity of Night blog. She also has work forthcoming in Saraba Magazine, Mimi MagazineThe Anthology of Immigrant Writing (2010) and  African Roar [2010 short story anthology, co-published by Lion Press and StoryTime]. Ayodele hopes to publish an anthology of short fiction soon and is currently working on her first novel.]

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