Monday 26 April 2010

Tyranny in Big Pieces, Little Pieces

This week CLR presents Ayodele Morocco-Clarke's review of Big Pieces, Little Pieces, the StoryTime short story by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. Enjoy!

Big Pieces, Little Pieces is a short story by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. In this story, the writer explores the burning issue of domestic abuse. The story is told in the second person narrative style which has the resultant effect of transporting the reader right into the middle of the sequence of unfolding events.

Big Pieces, Little Pieces opens by showing the reader the autocratic nature of the patriarchal figure in the household, rapidly unfurling into a catalogue of abuse of horrific magnitude. Whilst reading, one wonders why the wife does not take the children and run, run, run. Surely anything would be better than subjecting oneself and one’s offspring to erratic, irrational behaviour and regular physical abuse.

The story is even more heartbreaking as it is told from the point of view of one of the children who has lived with and through this constant abuse. The story reveals that though the father rules the roost with an iron fist, the abused wife attracts no support or sympathy from her sister-in-law despite her seeing clear evidence of the abuse. She actually lays the blame of all the violence on the victim trying to exonerate her brother, justifying his actions on the ground that “he was the head of the family and knew what was best for everyone.” To add salt to the wound, she then goes on to accuse the wife of bringing forth the wrath of her brother and refuses to intervene despite heartfelt pleas to do so. In her words –

“I have never seen such a woman, honestly! Is it my fault that you do not know how to appease your husband, that you anger him all the time? I will say it again, lo yiwo umendo.”

And so, the abuse continues unabated, culminating in a series of events which though do not shock, but nevertheless saddens the reader while following the story as it hurtles rapidly to its end.

The downside I found in the story was where it appeared the writer confused a bit of narration with what should really have been dialogue and sometimes what really is dialogue is not properly denoted as such (But that may just be me being pedantic as the writer might have chosen to adopt in parts the Nadine Gordimer-esque style used in “The Pickup”, although this would be inconsistent with other parts of the dialogue employed). These minute niggling points however do not take away from the beauty of a well narrated story.

With this story, one can see that Tshuma is an emerging writer with immense promise. Big Pieces, Little Pieces is one of the StoryTime stories which were selected for publication in the short story anthology “African Roar” out in late April 2010. Watch out for African Roar and Tshuma. Both should surely be worth reading.

[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 Magazine, Storytime, Author-Me and on The Clarity of Night blog. She also has work forthcoming in Mimi Magazine, The 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.]

Sunday 18 April 2010


This week, CLR is happy to present another review of one of Random House's books. Too Much Happiness is the latest anthology of short stories by Alice Munro and it is reviewed here by award winning writer Sarah Hilary. Enjoy!

My first experience of reading Alice Munro was her story, Wild Swans, a story with a taut, irresistible rhythm that made the shocking event at its heart feel entirely natural. This, to me, is the marvel of Munro’s writing. She knows a good story must contain a grain of surprise, an occurrence we do not expect but which nevertheless feels part of the living pulse of the story. At her best, she puts her considerable skill into structuring the story around the surprise, drawing us towards it in ways we cannot always anticipate but which, ultimately, satisfy our curiosity and our appetite as readers.

There are stories in this latest collection that show Munro at her skillful best.

Child’s Play is one, a masterfully plotted tale of childhood terror and guilt in which our sympathies are divided, sub-divided and then put through the equivalent of a moral meat-grinder in a way that perfectly reflects the confused emotions of the heroines, and victims, at its heart. The character of Verna is vividly described, put at arm’s length from us and then brought nearer until we start to experience some of the heroine’s irrational terror. We know it is irrational; we guess Verna has more to fear from the heroine than she from Verna, but we’re compelled to feel the heroine’s emotions. The story’s ambiguous moral, and its suspended ending, is the better for that.

She was skinny, indeed so narrowly built and with such a small head that she made me think of a snake. Fine black hair lay flat on this head, and fell over her forehead. The skin of her face seemed dull to me as the flap of our old canvas tent, and her cheeks puffed out the way the flap of that tent puffed in a wind. Her eyes were always squinting.

The collection begins with a frightening story, Dimensions, about a woman’s gradual and painful recovery from appalling loss. Munro doesn’t deal in the commonplace, least of all when it comes to emotional responses from her characters and readers. In Dimensions, Doree’s response to the shocking loss of her children is not what we might expect, or it is not only that. There is no familiar ground for the reader to tread here; instead we are confronted by an alien scrubland of grief and survival, hope and despair. It may not be familiar, but it feels real. Honest. Discomfiting. No easy place for us to rest, or pass judgement of our own. I thought this was a terrific story.

I felt less strongly about Fiction (as an aside: I’m often disappointed by Munro’s story titles, which rarely do justice to the content). A truncated novel rather than a short story, to my taste Fiction was out-of-whack almost from the outset. Adultery separates a woman from her husband. It seems painful, the point of the story. But then we pick up years later and everyone in the novel is remarried for the third or fourth time; adultery is the norm. A witness to the original adultery has written a novel about it, but she fails to recognise the heroine of her own story when they are brought face to face after years apart. The story fell flat at the first fast-forward to the future, and didn’t pick up pace again. As another aside: I don’t care for stories about writers, and was turned off by the long passages recited from the author’s novel which read as a plot conceit, putting me at arm’s length from the heart of the story and keeping me there.

Wenlock Edge (great title, but not Munro’s own) confused me, I admit it. It contains the creepiest encounter I’ve read in any story in a long time, somewhat echoing the shock at the heart of Wild Swans, but I didn’t understand the ending, an exchange of addresses that implied a betrayal or a reconciliation but of whom or what I was left unsure.

Relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, childhood friends, are explored in Face, Some Women, and Deep-Holes. The latter left me cold, petering out after a promising start into an awkward standoff between mother and son (again, this story relied on the device of fast-forwarding, losing me along the way). Face was suitably shocking, and sad, very sad. Some Women flirted with the idea of domestic prostitution, uneasy adult bartering as witnessed by a child. Both stories are effective variations on Munro’s theme of the depths and shallows of human isolation.

Free Radicals reverted to the terrifying territory of Dimensions and Child’s Play. An middle-aged woman, newly widowed and dying of cancer, confronts a killer in her home. The action is centred with unflagging focus on this confrontation. Munro catches us in the moment and doesn’t let go. The structure is drum-taut, told in real time. No fast-forwarding, no chance for our attention to waver. And then the treat of a second shock, skillfully hidden in the unfolding top-story, written almost as an aside but with the power to stun us a second time.

‘Pretty plate,’ he said, holding it up as if to see his face in it. Just as she turned her attention to the eggs she heard it smash on the floor.

‘Oh mercy me,’  he said in a new voice, a squeaky and definitely nasty voice. ‘Look what I’ve gone and done now.’

‘That’s all right,’ she said, knowing now that nothing was.

The story I liked least – in fact I struggled to finish it – was the story from which the collection took its title. Too Much Happiness, as Munro explains in a footnote, is inspired by the real life of Sophie Kovalevsky, a novelist and mathematician from the nineteenth century whose life story, full of surprises, clearly captured Munro’s heart and her imagination. The problem, for me, is that the discipline of telling a true story stifled Munro’s real imagination, preventing her from following her own rhythm and introducing her own surprises. It didn’t engage or satisfy me because I was too aware that I was missing out on Munro’s gift for telling stories of her own invention.

Wood is exactly such a story. Seemingly simple, deeply complex, with a heart that beats right off the page. A man made lonely by his wife’s breakdown drifts further and further into his isolated life as a woodcutter. His love of trees is palpable, as is his newfound happiness and the guilt he experiences as a result. His withdrawal from his wife and the rest of the world nearly costs him his life, yet when he is saved and sees his wife restored (a thing he has longed for) he acknowledges a sense of loss:

Because he knows he isn’t feeling quite the way he thought he would if her vitality came back to her. And the noise he makes could be to cover that lack, or excuse it…

Some loss fogging up this gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy.

This character’s voice is pitch-perfect, his inner monologue a Munro-patented confusion of conflicting emotions that draw their credibility and their power from exactly that confusion. Nothing is black and white here; Munro paints in shades of grey, with skill and tenderness and unflinching compassion. Long may she continue to do so.

[Sarah Hilary ( is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Sarah won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Historical Crime Prize in 2008. Most recently, her work was Highly Commended by Aesthetica and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A column about her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books.]

Sunday 4 April 2010

A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted

Critical literature Review begins the second quarter of the year with Ikhide Ikheloa's Review of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's début novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance which won the Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book Prize for the African Region and is in the running for the overall Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book Prize. Enjoy!

Exile is a fitting metaphor for alienation. It is akin to the biblical purgatory. Nothing is quite 
right; one feels neither here nor there, trapped in a dispensation that is not quite alien, not quite home. And all your senses rebel to the death against the changes that you need to embrace in order to enjoy, well, purgatory. I guess it makes sense, this disconcerting feeling of constantly being out-of-sorts, like a gentle but persistent hangover. It wouldn’t be purgatory otherwise. It is the assault or the rebellion of your senses that hurts the most.

Nothing tastes, smells, looks the same and everywhere you go you hear voices of impish vendors selling fake reminders of home because there is money in selling the weary traveler a mirage. And it is not for lack of trying; exiles go through a million hoops to replicate the bread of their childhood.

There is a multibillion dollar industry out here in America devoted to soothing our collective angst. If you no longer know how to tie your gele head-tie, there are shops that will do the honors for you – for a modest fee of course. There are “African markets” that sell stale desiccated and preserved replicas of what one misses the most about home. It is not the same, but it is better than nothing.

Every now and then, the exile gets a reprieve from the purgatory of dislocation – in the form of an authentic treat – straight from home. Visiting relatives and friends from Nigeria know now not to knock on my door without the requisite offerings - Open Sesame to my hearth and my heart – bottles of groundnuts, fresh ground ogbono, egusi, snails the size of an elephant’s ears, etc. And if they really want to open the iroko doors to my rugged heart, they come bearing books written by Nigerians inNigeria and published in Nigeria.

Prolonged exile burdens the memory to the point of vital literary loss and no amount of poetic license can stem this loss. Most books aboutNigeria written by Nigerians abroad tend to suffer the indignity of loss. This deficit is from prolonged absence by the writer’s muse from the scene of the crime (Nigeria). I look to Nigerian writers actually stationed in Nigeria to sate my hunger for a real literary taste of home. And writers like Kaine Agary and Ike Oguine have delivered big on that expectation.

I am glad to say that despite (perhaps because of) the challenges of living in Nigeria (some of these challenges appear fictitious judging from the ruddy cheeks of my Nigerian-based relatives on Facebook!) these writers have been up to the task. In this respect, I ask you to run, don’t walk, just run to the nearest wherever-people-buy-books-these-days and grab you a copy of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s peppy book I Do Not Come to You By Chance. 

I have racked my brains, thought about it, and come to the possibly audacious conclusion that this writer may have just written one of the most comprehensive documentation in prose-song of the ravages of the locust of materialism on our people’s way of life. Using the scourge of 419 as evidence number one, Nwaubani’s Nigeria gently explodes into a sea of caricatures and spills out onto the pages of our consciousness. I am literally in awe of the audacity of this writer’s muse.

How do I describe this little book that could? O yes, imagine, O gentle reader, imagine a frying pan, rich with all sorts of orisi risi, sizzling, all these delicacies jumping about for joy waiting to clamber into your waiting mouth. The book is funny in unexpected places: “He brought out an it-was-white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped the sweat from his brows.” (p 59) And it is caustic in all the right places: “Although his position on the family tree could not be described in anything less than seven sentences, Odinkemmelu was introduced to us as our cousin.” (p 24).

Using enthusiastic and lively prose, Nwaubani offers a chilling documentation of greed and rampant materialism replicated from city to city, village to village and generation to generation. This is a cancer that is eating at the nation called Nigeria. This sounds crazy, but I would love to see this book in a high quality movie. It definitely reads like an exquisite movie expertly set to print. Nwaubani writes with the confidence of one with an insider’s knowledge if 419 activities. The book actually takes its title from the beginning of a “419” letter to an unsuspecting wealthy foreigner or “mugu.”:

“Dear Friend, I do not come to you by chance. Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign business man or company I was given your contact by the Nigerian chamber of Commerce and Industry, I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.” (p 178)

So now, you know what the book is all about. The main character Kingsley loses his idealism and joins his uncle Boniface aka Cash Daddy in a lucrative crime syndicate that shakes down gullible foreigners (mostly white) from the safety of the cyber-cafes that litter Nigeria’s urban centers. The story of “419” is now familiar to the point of it being a cliché. The foreigner is lured into paying various “fees” for the (empty) promise of reaping huge sums of money allegedly stashed somewhere in a bank vault. This scam has so affected Nigeria’s international reputation, the country has a penal code numbered “419” that attempts to deal with the issue.

Overwhelming and dismaying to the senses is Nwaubani’s faithful chronicle of the changing of the same seasons of anomie (apologies Soyinka). The prose grabs you like Nigeria and never lets go. Listen to the book’s opening sentence: “My taste buds had been hearing the smell of my mother’s cooking and my stomach had started talking.” Nice. Repeat that to yourself and watch Nigeria parade itself before your eyes. You don’t learn that from an MFA program. As I read this book, the laughter came in liquid fistfuls of sobs. This writer almost turned me into an immobile lunatic, sitting in my living room grinning like a domesticated idiot.

I exaggerate slightly; I did not move from my living room until I finished reading this book. I sat grinning, my heart and soul yelling for more. I would not part with this precious book; the shower came to me and gave me a bath. The book was that good.  Ah, the poetry in the conversations was authentically Nigerian and that takes confidence and skill. Man, I love Nwaubani’s writing. She breaks down complex truths into simple edible morsels of well, joy. What a treat. If you are looking for an unpretentious little story that will engage you, this one will do the trick.

Nwaubani is a truly unique and authentic voice. There is so much wisdom in her voice; it is young and fresh, bearing tart, plump and delightful attitudes, pregnant with truths untold and re-told. In this book one learns quickly that poverty comes in many forms. Nwaubani’sNigeria has become really poor in ways that famous Nigerian writers have not been able to convey in several dense books about the subject.

The reader comes face to face with the ravages of materialism in the pretense of the new evangelical religion, willing faux wealth on the dispossessed (for a modest tithe of course).  The book tracks the flight of purposeful existence and provides the reader a concise, succinct, deep commentary on so many social issues – the extended family system, corruption, the scourge of materialism, etc.

Nwaubani’s Nigeria reeks of rampant anti-intellectualism. Hear Kingsley’s uncle Cash Daddy berating him for wearing his idealism and intellect on his tattered sleeves: “Is honesty an achievement? Personality is one thing, achievement is another thing. So what has your father achieved? How much money is he leaving for you when he dies? Or is it his textbooks that you’ll collect and pass on to your own children?” (p 153)

Priceless was the Onitsha-Market-Literature style love letter (p 72). Original and scrumptious turns of phrases open your mouth wide in wonder and awe. This is unapologetic prose – you either get it or you don’t – there is no appendix or index explaining what eba means. It takes confidence to have that attitude. “At age seven, when it was confirmed that her right hand could reach across her head and touch her left ear, Augustina moved back to her father’s house and started attending primary school. Being long and skinny had worked to her advantage.”

I love Nwaubani; she wields her words expertly, sometimes like an accurate missile or sometimes like a soothing balm. “Odinkemmelu took his body odor away to the kitchen and returned with a teaspoon of salt.” (p 17). Sweet. Her prose even gives voice to inanimate objects: My tender triceps started grumbling (p 19)

And if I could, I would sing a lusty oriki to the prodigious industry of the editors; the book is edited just right and it retains the author’s signature voice. It takes great skill to edit a book of this sort and still keep it chock full of crisp rollicking prose. “My father was a walking encyclopedia, and he flipped his pages with the zeal and precision of a magician.” (p 22) The furtiveness of the sentence before your eyes holds your attention captive as it hands you over to the next sentence. Brilliant. The writing reminds me so much of Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale; maybe also, Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel.

There are all these delightful characters with colorful names like World Bank, Protocol Officer and Wizard. The book expertly showcases the caricature as real life and out of the pages of this book; Nigeria simply spills out into the streets of my part of America. For Nwaubani uses every bit of a conversation and simply drops it in the book. Nwaubani’s descriptive powers are fueled by a dark delicious imagination:

 “Cash Daddy’s cheeks were puffy, his neck was chunky, his five limbs were thick and long.” (p 213) Five limbs! Lawd have mercy! And her Pidgin English is impeccable: “Make una come see o, Graveyard don begin dey use perfume” (p 29).

One nice fringe benefit: I learnt a new fable about why the tortoise’s shell is cracked in several places. I won’t tell you; you will have to read the book yourself!

As a first novel, the book does show its flaws gently, ever so gently. The book is fairly autobiographical in parts. For the most part Nwaubani pulled off the tough trick of disengaging from the characters. However, the reader keeps seeing the writer in the main character Kingsley (Interesting enough, Kingsley is also named Opara - first son, and Adaobi, Nwaubani’s name means first daughter). The research that went into writing this book must have been considerable and it shows in the quality of the book.

Finally, I offer the criticism that the book does come off as a morality tale that begins too neatly and ends too tidily, Life is a lot messier than that. But who cares? It was pure fun looking at Nigeria’s myriad issues through this mirror of a thousand delights.

[Ikhide R. Ikheloa is an arts critic, writer and journalist. He can be reached at