Nuzo Onoh Explores the Monstrous in “The Sleepless”

(Purchase The Sleepless.)

My dear unknown friend,

We turn, a third time, towards Nuzo Onoh. The first time was when I found and reviewed her short story collection Unhallowed Graves. The second was when I interviewed her for this very publication. This, the third time, shall be to review her debut novel The Sleepless. Given the fact that I have publicly declared my friendship with Miss Onoh following that interview you may be wondering how biased I am reviewing the novel in question. I entertained that very question myself. Thankfully Miss Onoh’s writing renders any such question pointless.

Nuzo March 2016With The Sleepless we are once again within Nuzo’s realm of African Horror. Right from the start, with a child’s horrific encounter with a witch doctor, no punches are pulled. As I’ve written before, one of the powers within Nuzo’s work is that without the supernatural elements the material is absolutely horrifying. A strictly patriarchal society in which women have no say whatsoever, in which regular, systematic abuse is not only condoned but encouraged. A society in which strict taboos and superstitions are used as a means of control yet at the same time are in conflict with Evangelical Christianity. Unless of course the topic at hand happens to be making women’s lives miserable, at which point both sides are more than willing to sign a mutual non-aggression pact. Think Margaret Atwood without the comforting filter of far off futures or fantastical settings yet rather the here and now, within living memory.

Our guide through this world is Obelé, a six-year-old girl navigating a household in which Papa is beyond frustrated because his first wife died giving birth to his beloved daughter, Sister Ada, who is fifteen when the novel opens. His second wife, Obelé’s mother, not only refuses to relinquish her Catholic upbringing and worship at the Anglican church he attends but bore him only one son, Kene, born disabled and later to fall victim to other debilitating childhood illnesses. In a society where only the male heir matters and willful disobedience to one’s husband is unheard of this public display of defiance not only threatens the balance of power within his own household but also his standing within the community.

Now here let us pause and clear the air. I hope by now you’ve grown to realize I do not reveal vast swaths of any book I review. So rest assured, these are merely the broadest brush strokes of Nuzo’s canvas. Also, given what I have told you so far I can imagine one asking why bother with such depressing material? Simply put the quest for beauty. Nuzo Onoh has an eye for beauty, she finds it in the love between sisters, between children trapped in situations adults can’t comprehend, and in landscapes ravaged and abandoned. She can envision those moments of beauty and convey them in careful, considered writing that places her amongst the top in our field. Ever since I first stumbled across Unhallowed Graves I’ve had the distinct and frequent pleasure of looking up from Nuzo’s writing to stare into the far distance and marvel at a beautifully wrought turn of phrase.

9781909484832-cov2.inddAccompanying Obelé on her journey is Mother Voice whose messages assist Obelé in times of crisis and yet the source of this voice is more than a little troubling. Is the child possessed? Psychic? Perhaps a third, even more fantastic explanation is on hand yet none of these bode well for Obelé herself because even more horrifying than the descriptions of witchcraft in The Sleepless are the descriptions of the trials faced by those accused of witchcraft. Cast your mind back for a second to the days of Medieval Europe or Colonial America and then consider the fact they did not have ready access to ingredients such as kerosene and rubber tires.

During the course of interviewing Miss Onoh for Lovecraft eZine I mused how much of her creations were from her imagination and how much were from her background growing up in Nigeria. This prompted her to send me a pdf of the final draft of The Sleepless with a note saying she was interested to see if I could untangle what lay inside. I bring this up because there is one scene in this novel, when Obelé meets key characters within the novel, that read like a masterful homage to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. The very last thing I expected within a book of African Horror was a scene that transported me immediately to the mid-eighties, reading Salem’s Lot in my Aunt’s summer house, the hackles on the back of my neck rising, yet there it was. Yet another time Miss Onoh utilizes her familiarity with the Yoruba religion to write a scene of such magical beauty Neil Gaiman will very likely swoon should this book ever cross his path. Once again this blind sided me, I was completely expecting one pathway and the next I’m caught in an uprushing sense of wonder. I’m a magician, I’m trained in lessons such as “the larger motion covers the smaller” and still she bamboozled me, time and again.

This brings us to the end of Part One. Part Two shows us the ramifications of Obelé’s new awakening, her family fleeing the arrival of the Hausas and the outbreak of the Biafran Civil War. When her Mother says, “Jesus Christ has sanctioned the war and shall avenge His Christian People, the Igbo Biafrans,” Obelé, being eight at the time, doesn’t realize it’s probably prudent to keep shut with Mother Voice’s counsel to pack twice as much food because the war may last longer than any of the adults wish to believe. Indeed Part Two increases the horrific imagery as the war overtakes and consumes Obelé, her family, and her friends.

The Sleepless is a work that continues long after you’ve finished the last page. It’s a novel of transformation and forgiveness, even forgiveness you don’t wish to grant. The writing is gorgeous, the material astounding and more importantly, it needs to be heard. This is horror writing in service, without preaching, without becoming didactic. That’s a humbling accomplishment. The dedication pages alone on this novel gives one pause. I have no problem recommending The Sleepless wholeheartedly.

For a soundtrack I am beyond delighted to say I have discovered Adam Kvasnica on Mixcloud, a 25-year-old lawyer from Slovakia whose passion is collecting vinyl and acting as the program director for a local radio station. Based upon the mixes on his page they are supremely lucky, I wish he operated a pirate FM station in Brooklyn. He’s found modern jazz that delights even my jaded, blackened, and wizened little heart. Do not fret, there are more than enough mixes of Classic, Latin,Czechoslovakian,  and electronic jazz, library music collections, Japanese soul, hip hop, whatever makes your little palms sweat. This cat’s rabbit hole goes deep. May I suggest his Journey Into Spiritual Jazz as an entry point?

As Rachel Cooper says in one of my most beloved films, Night of the Hunter, “It’s a hard world for little things.” Celebrate the beautiful wherever you find it.

Purchase The Sleepless.

This review was written by Acep Hale.

2 responses to “Nuzo Onoh Explores the Monstrous in “The Sleepless”

  1. After reading this review I can’t wait to read both of Ms Omoh’s books. It is even half as good as suggested they must be one hell of a read. I am going to have to fine just the correct time to read them so I won’t miss any of it’s wonderment.

    I’ll let you know what I think of the books.

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