It feels exceptionally hard in a short review to do justice to the layers of story, character and life in A. Igoni Barrett’s second collection of short stories Love is Power or Something Like That. The characters that people these stories range across generation and gender – from 68 year old grandmother Ma Billie, living alone and facing an eye operation that will render her helpless, to 15 year old school boy Samu’ila, monetizing his passion for cybercafes in dating chat rooms. The stories (all but one set in Nigeria) explore the complexities of human relationships and the dynamics of power that push together and pull apart intimacy between parents and children, between cousins, lovers, neighbours, and colleagues.
‘Love means you make me happy until you don’t.’
They are narratives that powerfully confront uncomfortable truths; that we come to relationships with different expectations, that we can be abandoned and hurt by the people we love, that we often abandon and hurt those we love the most.
Three of these stories in particular – ‘The Worst Thing That Happened’, ‘The Shape of a Full Circle’ and ‘Godspeed and Perpetua’ – reflect the the ways in which histories can produce geographies, to paraphrase Arjun Appadurai. ‘Godspeed and Perpetua’ is the only story of the nine that self-consciously frames the narrative using Nigeria’s political history. The story moves across Godspeed and Perpetua’s 18 year marriage, their relationships with their only child Daoju, with their house-staff, with God, with work and ultimately with each other. The narrator’s voice has a punctiliousness that records details and time with meticulous precision, listing each item of clothing Godspeed removes before getting into bed with his wife, ‘his shoes, his socks, his tie, his shirt and trousers’, and situating events:
Three days, one hour and fourteen minutes before she turned seventeen, Daoju challenged her father for the first time. At 10.46pm on September 8, 1984, she told him…
Significant events in the relationship of Godspeed and Perpetua are framed in relation significant events in Nigeria’s history: ‘On the day of the second coup d’état, the last Friday in July 1966’, for example, and ‘The big fight happened on a Friday in May 1970, four months after the civil war ended.’ Apart from when their cook’s coffin has to be constructed from scavenged wood
‘because of the civil war’, these historical events for the most part seem removed from the story of family relationships Barrett is telling – they frame but don’t intrude directly upon them. Yet, at the end of ‘Godspeed and Perpetua’ while the narrator tells us that Daoju feels responsible for her father’s death, the text’s framing instead implies that the family relationships the story centres on are ultimately controlled by the political events taking place alongside them. It is not Daoju but the military regime that has compulsorily retired Godspeed from the civil service and whose economic policies have caused rising unemployment and crime, that cause the story’s unhappy ending. Barrett’s consciously awkward positioning of Nigeria’s political history locates the story geographically, suggesting that Godspeed and Perpetua’s marriage would certainly have played out differently in another time and place.
While I agree with Hannah Gersten in her review of Love is Power or Something Like That for The Millions that ‘his sincerity, his depth, his emotion, and on the technical side, his ability to quickly indicate character and the passage of time’ makes a first novel from A. Igoni Barrett something to pine for, the beauty she doesn’t acknowledge is that if you look closely enough, this collection does also take the reader full circle with Perpetua and Daoju. While ‘Godspeed and Perpetua’ is the penultimate story, in the first story ‘The Worst Thing That Happened’ Perpetua, now living alone in fear and poverty, is the neighbour that Ma Billie experiences an unexpected and poignant moment of intimacy with. Perhaps even more shatteringly in ‘The Shape of a Full Circle’ we meet Daoju, who at 16 was ‘a queen’ accompanying her father on foreign business trips, but is now a drunk plagued by guilt for her father’s death, unable to care for her three children and reduced to ‘slapping, scratching and kicking’ her eldest son when he loses the only money to buy more alcohol. Retrospectively and almost silently Nigeria’s political history weaves its way into these interlinked stories as well.
A. Igoni Barrett has been feted by leading names in African writing, with Binyavanga Wainaina calling him ‘the most exciting writer producing right now’ and Teju Cole heralding the ‘arrival of a major talent’. What Wainaina, Cole and most recently Nadine Gordimer praise in Barrett’s writing is his use of language and voice, with Gordimer commenting on the way in which he makes ‘colloquial literature’ and captures the inventiveness of ‘contemporary communication’. Barrett’s descriptions often assault the senses with their precision and physicality – ‘the hoof dug him in the wrist and bloodstained ligaments extended like hacked wires from the knee joint’ or ‘his imagination grew insect legs and crawled all over his nerves.’ His use of dialogue also infuses with energy the human encounters he describes, rendering the language patterns of Nigerian English to reveal brutal, ‘I go fit burst this craze woman head. Try me!’, intimate, ‘Make they see. They go know sey their papa love their mama’ and humorous, ‘‘who has messed?’, everyday encounters.
Nadine Gordimer’s endorsement of Love is Power or Something Like That finishes by describing the book as ‘something alive, like that’, praise that must have been particularly gratifying for a writer who has said ‘The only job I demand of literature? Electrify me with awe for life.’ Reading these nine short stories I was moved almost seamlessly between moments of laughter, uncomfortable empathy, repulsion, sadness and tenderness. Yet there is also something in the sometimes silent histories and geographies, the unfamiliarity of phrase or acronym, that also made me wrestle with the push and pull of my own disconnection and connection to these stories located in contemporary Nigeria. Gordimer is right that A. Igoni Barrett is a writer that makes you feel alive.
Love is Power or Something Like That is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus, in the US by Graywolf Press and will be published in Nigeria by Farafina Books.
 Appadurai, Arjun. 2010. “How Histories Make Geographies.” Transcultural Studies no. 2010 (1).
Categories: Reviews & Spotlights on...
join the discussion: