Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: "And After Many Days" by Jowhor Ile

And After Many Days by Jowhor Ile appears at first to be a book about a son who goes missing. Told from the perspective of the younger son, Ajie, the book opens with a description of the Utu family on the day that Paul, the older son, leaves the house to visit a neighbor and never comes home. But it soon becomes obvious that this book is not primarily about the family’s search for the missing son, or even about how they are affected by his loss. It is simply about a family, and Paul’s disappearance serves merely as a turning point between “Then” and “Now”, as we go look back into the past and explore the family relationships prior to the disappearance and then continue on afterwards as the family carries on without Paul.

Set against a backdrop of war-torn Nigeria in the 1990s, the contrast between the culture and the political unrest of the period, which is so completely foreign to most North American and European readers, and the typical issues of the family, which are so familiar, is what is most striking. Paul, Ajie, and their sister Bibi experience typical sibling squabbles, vying for their parents’ attention and affection, developing their own identities as they grow up, struggling with school and friendships and figuring out their own futures. We can all identify with Ajie’s frustration at being blamed for fights he didn’t start, the children’s admiration of their father, the youngsters’ excitement at their first taste of independence as they leave home to attend boarding school. These feelings are universal. It is easy to forget the different world that this family lives in until outside events break in: students are killed by corrupt police; Ma tells the children the story of how their father’s mother gave birth to two sets of twins, who were all drowned and the second set blinded, to prevent them “from seeing their way back to this same family to cause sorrow”; a group of activists are hanged after a mockery of a trial. These events are shocking to most readers. Life is cheap in this world, and it must go on even when a son goes missing.

Ile creates a beautiful picture of this family, deftly bringing in stories of the parents’ pasts and experiences of neighbors and friends to create a clear picture of the world that has formed these individuals into the family they have become. Much like Ajie, we become so wrapped up in the lives of those who are left that we temporarily forget about Paul, and then feel guilty when we remember. At the end of the book, when we finally learn Paul’s fate, it is, in some ways, merely another moment in the life of these people, no more or less important than any other. It is something that must be accepted, because it has happened and cannot be changed. But it highlights the fact that Ajie’s life went on without his brother. He followed his own path, becoming an adult in this unpredictable world in which men are executed without a trial and brothers disappear without much of a police inquiry.

Ile sums up the point of this book in Ajie’s thoughts as he looks at the manuscript of a book his mother has written on native plants: “Even if they become extinct,” he thinks, “at least a memory of them has been preserved and can be called to life any day.” Ajie’s memories of his family, both before and after Paul’s disappearance, keep Paul alive and through them, Paul continues to be a part of the family. Memories, whether those of Ajie’s parents or his own, are a powerful tool that keeps his family together and carries on their history into the next generation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. For additional information on this book, please see the Penguin Random House webpage.

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