Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Did Not Come to Read You By Chance

I Did Not Come to Read You by Chance

A Review of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Cassava Republic, 339 pages.
Chris Ihidero

Two recommendations need to be done with utmost care: a book and a spouse. If the wrong recommendations are made, a long hiss may follow your future recommendations. As a rule, I hesitate greatly before recommending either.

A friend of mine certainly does not apply the same rule. With all the enthusiasm she could muster, she recently declared to me that she had just read a certain book and she literally laughed her ass off and she loved the book because the writer was not ‘writerly’ at all and the book was such an easy read blah blah blah. I immediately asked for the author and name of the book as such books appeal to me greatly. I have no patience for authors of books that scream I AM A WRITER at you on every page. I also tend to love books that contain a fair chunk of wit. So I rushed to the Silverbird media store and bought Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance.

I began to worry by the 3rd page of the prologue when I encountered this sentence: “He was as handsome as paint.” I paused and looked around my room, seeking the handsomeness of the paint on the wall. I didn’t see it. I stepped outside and sought handsome paint somewhere, anywhere. I asked myself, is there some irony to this statement? But the person being described is actually supposed to be handsome! I am not one to give up easily so I continued, hoping that the statement was an oversight. I encountered flashes of brilliance along the way and was about to dislodge the nagging query about handsome paint when I arrived at page 28 and discovered this statement: “Her voice sounded like a beautiful flower.” I didn’t have a beautiful flower anywhere close so I sat up and thought long and hard of the last time I heard the voice of a beautiful flower? Never! Why these pedestrian similes, I asked loudly.
The novel attempts to chronicle the realities that lead people into a life of crime. Kingsley Ibe, a recent graduate can’t find employment and the love of his life, Ola, leaves him for a man who can buy her Versace bags and Gucci shoes. His father, highly educated, principled and poor dies in penury and his masters degree holder mother’s dying sewing business can’t sustain them. A burdensome sense of responsibility takes hold of Kingsley and he decides to join the 419 business of his Uncle Boniface who has reincarnated as Cash Daddy. The first 144 pages (Part 1) of this novel are therefore dedicated to explaining how Kingsley came to such a decision. I have a few problems with this unnecessarily elongated ‘back-grounding’. This could have been done in a couple of chapters. We knew from very early on that he was going to make that decision. Also, probably because of this elongation, the decision comes across as escapist as he could have chosen otherwise. They lived in a flat; could afford the luxury of two house-helps (though relatives); he was a brilliant student and could have got a job if he looked elsewhere, rather than insisting on oil companies. This early part of the book falls flat loudly on this account, especially since it wasn’t as if they were so poor that they were munching sand and sipping gutter water.

We finally arrived at the novel’s thrust in Part Two and something becomes obvious immediately: this actually is where the story starts. This probably is the story the writer wanted to write all along. Her words began to come together beautifully and I actually laughed out loud at some lines: “He stepped out of the shower and yanked a large towel to start drying his body. Once again I wondered how the scrawny urchin, who lived with my family all those years ago, had metamorphosed into this fleshy edifice...I half expected his bloated belly to wriggle free of his body and start break-dancing on the tiled floor in front of me. It seemed to have a life of its own.” Over the next 186 pages, we are taken through the modus operandi of 419 and the accompanying lifestyle. Kingsley moves up in society, amasses wealth, globe-trots, frolics with girls and becomes the bread-winner of his family. Meanwhile, Cash Daddy, tired of just making money, dabbles into politics and gets himself killed. Kingsley refuses to take over the reins of leadership of the organisation and, basically the story ends. Because such an ending is untidy, an 8page epilogue follows and we see that Kingsley has set up his own organisation where his ever-admonishing mother pays him a visit, showing her acceptance of his new, seemingly legit, status. In reality, it’s a cover up as we see him take a call from a former mugu and it’s business as usual.

A couple of friends have whispered to me that the only reason this book won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (African region) was because of the issue it deals with, Advance Fee Fraud, 419 and aggressive campaign by Cassava Republic, the Nigerian publishers. This, they say, is the kind of ‘agenda writing’ that the West is always quick to celebrate (the book was first published in the US) to satisfy their conditioned imagination concerning Africa and its people. Seriously, I don’t care. I don’t mind any author playing the politics of writing, as long as the writing is good. What writing isn’t political, really? I have also given up on questioning why a certain book wins any award. Some of the best books in literary history never won awards and sometimes those who give out these awards actually breathe something other than air. My worry is that (with aggressive PR, hype and the award), this novel could become representative of new voices, new writing. It could suggest to young writers that this is all you need to do to get all the hype and awards.

To sum up, this is a book that tells a familiar story in no new manner; it has a faulty beginning, a fair midsection and a rushed ending. Also, at 339 pages, it is unnecessarily long for the issues it addresses without new perspectives. I do not doubt Adaobi Nwaubani’s talent and this isn’t a terribly bad first novel; it is also not one I’ll rush to read again.