by Nuzo Onoh, 2016
Having read Onoh's earlier UNHALLOWED GRAVES, I was anxious for more of her tales of African horror. And once again, the message is, stay the hell out of Africa. Especially at night!
In Onoh's Africa, husbands are tyrants and bullies; women and children are victims, except a few witch-women, as evil as the men. The jungle is a scary place, not because of lions and crocodiles and snakes, but because of the ghosts and demons and witch-doctors that inhabit them.
In Africa, witchcraft shapes the beliefs of pagans, Christians, and Muslims. Fear of witchcraft rules their lives. Human sacrifice is still practiced. Born and raised in Nigeria, Onoh knows her subject firsthand.
Against the backdrop of the tragic Biafran War of 1967-70, we follow a little girl as she deals with her brother's death... and his return. Little Obelé finds herself dealing with apparitions and beatings as a brutal father expunges his guilt on his daughter's body.
Hoping to escape her fate, Obelé finds that the place she fears most is her only sanctuary. The scene where the titular Sleepless first appear is chilling and morbid and very cool. The book really comes alive at that point. As the story continues, their presence increases and become more pivotal to her.
The appearance of Nne Onwu, a kind of banshee, is also creepily effective. Amongst Nigerian deities, battles between good and evil are decided by which deity can up the ante of horror.
Part One is a ghost story and a very effective one. But Part Two shows the ramifications of Obelé having friends like The Sleepless. And the horrors are redoubled. But there are also some humorous bits, as the youthful Obelé compares and contrasts the Jehovah Yahweh God of the Protestants with the Jesus Christ God of the Catholics, wondering which of them will survive the upcoming war.
One bit that I felt could have benefited from expansion was the bombing of the school. It's described in an overview, some time after the event, despite the death of a character. Had this been told as Obelé experienced it, the scene would have been a very powerful reminder of the horrors of war.
But there are plenty of other wartime horrors shown—and not as a video game, with a kill score racked up, but the human cost as a mother digs through the rubble, hoping to find some body part she can identify as her child's. Scenes like that make the supernatural bits pale in comparison.
Indeed, perhaps the most horrifying events are not the witchcraft but the accusations of witchcraft. As these were once rampant in Europe and even America, they are still common in Africa. (A friend of mine is now in Ghana, working with the Humanist Service Corps, building shelters for women accused of witchcraft.)
In one fantastic, fairy-tale scene, the truth of Obelé's existence and her destiny is revealed to her. Perhaps intentionally, the line, “There is so much beauty, so much wonder to behold, such glorious sounds beyond anything the human ears has ever heard,” is reminiscent of a similar sentiment expressed at the conclusion of HP Lovecraft's “The Weird Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Both protagonists find a kind of salvation from mortal life in an underwater world ruled over by a benevolent queen.
Each chapter has one or two mistakes that a good proofreading should catch, like 'shinny' for 'shiny' or 'laden' for 'leaden'. A couple times we get lines like, “Obelé had watched the fight... helpless to help.” Using the same word twice in the same sentence makes readers cringe. Fortunately, there are not many boo-boos or misspellings in this book. Please don't let the few that occur prevent you from reading this excellent book.