Debut novels are not the easiest to write. What with the issues of harmonizing theme and style, managing and sustaining mood and narrative points of view and moderating all these to yield a unified whole for the sheer pleasure of reading? It is never easy, but Jowhor Ile has managed these disparate aspects admirably in his debut novel, And After Many Days, a family narrative that has a resonance and echo of 1980s and 1990s Nigeria, with its history of military jackboots, students unrest, academic disruptions, communal agitations as a result of the activities of oil companies and the fatalities inflicted on local communities and the brutal murder of environmental rights activist and writer, Kenule Saro-Wiwa.
But it is a tale of police brutality, told in non-hysterical manner, of the brutal murder of a youth and how it knits the story together. Like its Lagos counterpart story and Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days is the story of a missing boy, set in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The Itu family is a middle class one, which is staggered by the tragedy of its lost first son, Paul, who strolled out one day and never returns. However, one of the men who witnessed how Paul was hit with a riffle butt walks into their living room, after many years, when the family has dispersed, and it heightens the sense of loss, of a young life senselessly cut short at its prime. And the family, now without the father, finds redemption in the exhumation and final burial of a member lost at his prime.
“Paul floundered by door as though he had changed his mind; then he bent to buckle his sandals, slung on his backpack, left the house, and did not return.
“At least that is one way to begin to tell this story.”That is how Ile starts the story and he introduces the Itu family: the father, Bendic, a lawyer, whom the children call by name; the mother, Ma, the only daughter, Bibi, and the last son, Ajie. Ile’s family portrait is so realistically rendered that he takes the reader into the living room of the Itus to experience firsthand the siblings’ rivalry between Bibi and Ajie, Paul’s leadership as first child, Ajie’s attachment to his elder brother, Paul, Benedict’s disciplinary measures, the children’s pranks and everything that goes with family. It is a happy family, the Itus, until the tragedy of Paul’s disappearance hits it, and the family begins to reel from the strangeness of the situation. For Bendict, Ma, Ajie and Bibi, a new, surrealistic world dawns on them and they are least prepared to cope with it. But cope they must.
But until Paul disappears, the Itu family is a model one. They live in Port Harcourt, but like most city dwellers, they regularly visit their hometown, Ogibah. Ile illustrates the link between city dwellers and their remote villages, how Bendic, the city man is easily the mediator in disputes whenever he visited with his family that takes part in all the village rituals and customs. Ile’s portraiture of Ogibah gives readers a village’s slice of life, the joys and the disputes that sometimes flare out of hand to consume everyone. Bendic finds himself always intervening on behalf of Ogibah in court to ask for compensations from the recalcitrant oil company and fencing off police and military assault on his community for affronting the oil company.
Like most local communities in the Niger Delta, Ogibah is an oil-producing community. Thus the stage is set for a great showdown with the oil company operating in the town and government. It soon happens and lives are inevitably lost. Ogibah is a ghost town after the soldiers take it over to usher in a reign of terror. The oil company’s style is to stoke conflict with its divide and rule tactics that set the people against themselves. Ile has an eye for the local politics of oil operations in communities so blessed and its disruptive power to corrupt an innocent community into needless conflict that leaves it drained and prostrate.
Bibi and Ajie grow up under the shadow of a lost brother looming over them. When he comes of age, Ajie is whisked abroad to study; having lost the first son, the Itus do not want to risk the only son left. Bibi studies at home to become a doctor. It is also at this stage that a policeman walks into their living room and announces the evil deed of years ago to reawaken an old, unhealed wound.
A policeman, who witnessed Paul’s death years ago in the hands of his colleague, is now a repented man, a man of god, and has come to atone for his sin. “It is not enough to confess your sins and receive forgiveness from God,” the man sitting before Ma began. “Even though the blood of Jesus washes away your slate of sins clean, you have to go back to the people you’ve wronged in the past and try to make things right.”
Ile’s narrative has silent power behind it. Unhurried, powerful and incisive, And After Many Days sheds quiet illumination on what is an ordinary story and elevates it to a height unbelievable and unimaginable. Like Lagos, Port Harcourt has a new book that maps its streets and intimate contours in a warm way. This is a novel of quiet beauty and power. Ile’s And After Many Days is a lush addition to the supple narratives of the Niger Delta region in its subtle tracking of the region’s socio-political undercurrents. Through Ile’s rehash, the reader is able to relive the 1980s through the 1990s’ Port Harcourt and Nigeria’s harsh socio-political history. This book has haunting, even if memorable, resonance.