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by Helon Habila

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-393-05193-5
Publisher: Norton

A young Nigerian intellectual collides with his country’s brutal military regime, in this intense first novel by a native African writer now living in London.

Lomba is a Lagos journalist and would-be novelist whom we meet in 1997, when he’s imprisoned on fabricated charges, sunk in depression, which is recorded faithfully in his diary—and appropriated by the prison superintendent, who coaxes “Love Poems” out of Lomba, then sends them to his own mistress. Thereafter, the tale moves (rather chaotically) about in time as Habila focuses on: Lomba’s friend Bola, whose reckless antigovernment speeches destroy his life; the woman Lomba loves but cannot marry because she’s promised to another, an older man who pays her ailing mother’s medical bills; Lomba’s tenure at a magazine of arts and politics, The Dial (whose harried editor admonishes the idealistic young writer with “Everything is politics in this country, don’t forget that”); and the experiences of Kela, a teenaged delinquent sent to Lagos to live with relatives, who encounters Lomba just prior to the protest demonstration and consequent bloodbath that send Lomba to prison (his “crime”: observing and reporting the aforementioned demonstration). The “angel” for whom Lomba thereafter passively waits is the Angel of Death—as we’re reminded by far too many sententious generalizations about freedom stifled and “the stymied, sense-dulling miasma of existence.” Fortunately, these are offset by Habila’s gift for vivid sensory descriptions and employment of a rich pattern of images in which birds and flight suggest energy and escape, but also the elusiveness of loved and desired things; how swiftly and completely they can vanish.

Comparisons of Habila to Nigeria’s great novelist Chinua Achebe are, to put it mildly, premature. But he’s an obviously committed and serious writer: on balance, a more than worthy debut.