Review: The Past Is Never Dead – Ever Obi’s ‘Some Angels Don’t See God’

AiW Guest: Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè.

AiW note: Our Guest Reviewer,Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè, reviews Ever Obi’s second novel, a book which tackles the difficult and taboo subjects entangled around incestuous child sexuality in the home. Accompanying the review today is Adégòkè’s Q&A with the novelist, which expands on the issues and the significance of Obi’s handling of them through Some Angels Don’t See God.

Two epigraphs betoken Ever Obi’s second novel, Some Angels Don’t See God: from The Sea (2005) by John Banville: ‘The past beats inside me like a second heart’; and from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1950): ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. Beyond the author’s clever invitation to comparison between these novels and his own, understanding how these function early on is instructive in the reading of Some Angels. The excerpts are like stylistic guides that inform Obi’s writing; they are like beams that follow the plot. 

Banville’s The Sea is a novel celebrated for its nonlinear narrative, prose style and theme. Obi’s plot in Some Angels Don’t See God is nonlinear. In fact, in the first section of the book there is an absence of a plot altogether. The narrative seamlessly alternates between the past and present, blurring the line between them. Meanwhile, the famous quote from Faulkner is a cursor to the central conflict that reaches its zenith in the second part of Some Angels: the past is a baggage, subject to the law of repeated returns. The events in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun – itself formally experimental, part novel, part play script – occur just short of a decade after the events of Faulkner’s early novel, Sanctuary, as the protagonist must learn to deal with the violent past related in Sanctuary, as she seeks atonement, looking back as an adult and a mother. 

The echoing timeframes of Some Angels Don’t See God centre around two characters, Peter and Neta, and the writing of a novel, penned by Neta, which acts as a catalyst for their reunion. Throughout, Peter’s and Neta’s stories are interleaved like the verso and recto sides of a page, clasped together by common childhood trauma. The novel lifts the veils over their distressing pasts that clogs their potential futures. It throws light on complex sexual desire and loss of childhood innocence. 

The narrative opens in retrospect, with Peter: ‘There was a time when Peter’s life was simple, when little things in it were enough.’ (pg. 1) This simplicity in prose style and content steers us into childhood, a period when life was so simple for many. And for Peter, it is really not different. He had caring parents and a younger brother’s love to bask in. But Peter’s perfect life crumbles in a series of difficult losses and his childhood innocence is shed. Nevertheless, he is able to go through it all, eventually becoming a banker whose laissez-faire life has no drama, except for a constant longing for the past. 

On the other side of the page is Neta. Now a novelist, her story begins in adulthood, as she contemplates herself in the mirror, preparing for a public reading of her latest book. She is bothered that she must rely on her glasses to mask the ‘depressed flesh that encircle[s] her eyes.’ (pg. 35) And promptly, we are led into her past through an object from her childhood – a snow globe – which she feels like dashing against her reflection. 

This intense dissatisfaction with her reflected image shows how much one’s self-portrait is an accumulation of others’ impressions, always made in reference to what comes from the outside. It echoes that passage in A. Igoni Barrett’s BlackAss when the protagonist, Furo, first contemplates his transformation when he wakes up one morning to find himself a white man. But unlike Furo’s alienation from his family because of his sudden change of skin colour, Neta’s withdrawals stem from the internal baggage she continually carries, the dirty secret that destroyed her childhood, imprisoning her in a cell of grief. 

As the narrative circles us back, we find out that like Peter’s, Neta’s childhood is filled with love. Her parents dote on her and her twin brother, Jeta, and the quality of time they cannot spend with them is filled by their mother’s cousin, Aunty Chidinma. Everything seems perfect on the surface – what could possibly go wrong? Edna, their mother, is reassured by leaving the twins with her cousin from the village, rather than live-in housemaids, who are thought to be capable of evils such as poisoning the whole family, snatching the husband of the house, or stealing. Here, Edna and her high society friends briefly echoes the focal socio-economic theme in Cheluchi Onyemelukwe’s novel, The Son of the House – the ill treatment that housemaids can be subject to because of class disparity. But Aunty Chidinma, a teenager herself, is at that age where she craves sexual exploration, and being locked in with the little twins means her awakening hypersexuality has nowhere to go but to gain expression through them. 

Actions calcify into a restless secret that must be locked away, with tragic and fatal consequences. It is Neta who feels most the weight of the depravity, becoming her load that she carries into her adult life. The development of the incidents that result, the conditioning of Jeta’s own unquenchable, even violent, sexuality, and responses to the twins’ over-the-line intimacies within the family’s tight bonds of home and obligation are tightly controlled, highlighting similar explorations in contemporary fiction: in Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu, for example, parental negligence of their twins, Ruth and Job, stimulated a similar act. In Some Angels, we are shown a family unit full of love but one where members don’t spend quality time together and so lack fundamental understanding. What we see is the recipe for severe dysfunction. 

Back with the narrative present at Neta’s book reading, some members of her audience are debating the authenticity of her novel with her. While it seems absurd at first, the significance of this literary discussion comes into focus with a blast from the past: Peter, who we find out is Neta’s former boyfriend from university days, is there. Catching up with her at a private dinner in a restaurant later that night, he accuses her of telling their story as a fiction. His bitterness and the circumstances of their estrangement stream into the narrative. Beginning their romance by a betrayal and ending it in their carrying of scars – his physical, from a violent retribution meant to be their relationship’s full stop, hers psychological as she ran from his misery and her belief that she will always be the cause of it – Neta feels compelled to leave Peter  because she is the result of the curse she now assumes will always dog her: men fight over her, men kill because they love her, because they want to possess her. 

Even when they do manage to resurrect their old passion, they each must struggle with obstacles standing in their way. When Peter takes Neta home to meet his mother, they discover  their lives had first intersected before they even knew each other, one link of the disturbing chain of events set off by the discovery of the twins’ childhood sexual breaches. Neta’s brother returns from prison, violent, unreformed, brutalised, even worse, while she takes on the baggage of the ruination and deaths that follow on from their early lives. 

This again attests to the combined shade of the epigraphs that precede the plot – that is, the past is alive and well; in fact, it is throbbing; it is a beating second heart full of the weight of suffering, responsibility, and guilt. But can Neta ever find redemption when her incestuous past throbs with so much dreadfulness like a shadow threatening to eclipse the sheaf of light that promises to make her whole again? 

Some Angels Don’t See God is a requiem to the loss of childhood innocence, complex sexual desire, mental health, and regressive cultural codes. Among the minor themes the novel treats is the Osu caste system in the old Igboland: ‘…Osus were humans whose ancestors had committed crimes against humanity and the gods, and were ostracised forever. “It is something the Igbos take very seriously,” she said. “People don’t marry Osus; they marry among themselves.”’ (pg. 27). 

This explanation, that Peter’s mum offers him when a child, foreshadows his entanglement in what is to come. The circularity of this foreshadowing is one of the techniques that illustrates Ever Obi’s full grasp of the story, from start to the end. He controls the tempo and plot in such a way that makes the book unputdownable and that keeps the past present, bringing us back to example after example of broader history and cultural codes repeating, like the news item Peter listens to in chapter one about some of the anomalies plaguing Nigeria: ‘As usual, the stories were disheartening. Corrupt politicians accused of looting hundreds of millions; the economic struggles of the Nigerian real sector; a man raped his twelve-year-old daughter; a Roman Catholic priest accused of pedastry’ (pg. 17). 

A reader will have no choice than to be emotionally invested in Obi’s Some Angels Don’t See God because it is tangible as it is harrowing. It acknowledges the ongoing influence of the many shared but unspoken pasts that wrench at the heart as they return into the present, refusing to die, despite the desire to turn to and begin the story again at a new page. 

Ever Obi’s second novel, Some Angels Don’t See God, is widely available to read now. Obi is a business executive and fiction writer based in Lagos, Nigeria and the author of Men Don’t Die and Some Angels Don’t See God.

Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.

Please read the accompanying Review Q&A with Ever Obi and find more reviews, Q&As and AiW posts from Tọ́pẹ́ here.

Excerpt from the Review Q&A for Some Angels:
Ever Obi: and that was how we found ourselves discussing incest at a dinner table.  

The book is about a lot of things, but when you focus on the main character, Neta, you would find that it is really about that incestuous relationship and how it affected her life. But there are about probably a score of themes that the story explored: imperfection, love, friendship, mental health and depression, betrayal, incest, child abuse, rape – a lot of taboo topics.

It is a book I decided to write after listening to various stories of people, and seeing how similar these experiences are. These things keep happening and we aren’t talking about them. I wanted to address these uncomfortable topics and highlight the scars of victims, as a reminder to us all of how incredibly flawed we are as humans, and our capacity to commit great evil against one another.

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