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Cathy Johnson

Wake Me When I’m Gone tells the story of Ese, widowed and bringing up her young son, Noah, alone. The language is simple and straightforward, almost in the manner of a fable, and the sense that the reader is listening to a story is enhanced by the first-person narrative. There is a timeless quality to the tale being told, although from the mention of items like radios, it is clear that it is set not that far off the present. I felt the picture of the small village and the faraway big city also contributed to the feeling of a fairytale.

Through Ese’s eyes, the reader witnesses the inferior position of women in the social order of the village. In this patriarchal society, a woman’s role is circumscribed and tradition is used as a reason for preventing any change. Hence, the attempt by the Head Priest and Chief of the village to force Ese to remarry or face the prospect of losing custody of her son to a male relative.

This is also a community influenced by superstition, fearful of the wrath of their gods in case they send bad weather or other natural disaster and who believe that defiance of the gods will bring madness and death. The people cling to cruel beliefs such as children made orphans by the death of their parents are responsible for those deaths because they are cursed. The orphans must be shunned, left homeless and without means of support.

Ese is unwilling to acc ...

Wake Me When I’m Gone tells the story of Ese, widowed and bringing up her young son, Noah, alone. The language is simple and straightforward, almost in the manner of a fable, and the sense that the reader is listening to a story is enhanced by the first-person narrative. There is a timeless quality to the tale being told, although from the mention of items like radios, it is clear that it is set not that far off the present. I felt the picture of the small village and the faraway big city also contributed to the feeling of a fairytale.

Through Ese’s eyes, the reader witnesses the inferior position of women in the social order of the village. In this patriarchal society, a woman’s role is circumscribed and tradition is used as a reason for preventing any change. Hence, the attempt by the Head Priest and Chief of the village to force Ese to remarry or face the prospect of losing custody of her son to a male relative.

This is also a community influenced by superstition, fearful of the wrath of their gods in case they send bad weather or other natural disaster and who believe that defiance of the gods will bring madness and death. The people cling to cruel beliefs such as children made orphans by the death of their parents are responsible for those deaths because they are cursed. The orphans must be shunned, left homeless and without means of support.

Ese is unwilling to accept unquestioningly the customs of the village, particularly where they threaten her son or where they seem morally wrong. Her resistance brings unwelcome consequences and she is forced to begin a lonely search for safety and shelter.

Throughout the novel, stories play a key part. There are the fearsome stories the priests tell to prevent resistance to the laws of the village. And there are the stories Ese tells to help her son cope with the loss of his father and the difficulties they face; hopeful messages that ‘one day things will change’ and that she has given him ‘the secret of happiness’ so he will never be sad. Her simple wisdom is rooted in principles of truth, kindness and generosity.

I found Ese’s story, although sad at times, ultimately uplifting with its message that good can come out of tragedy and a person’s legacy can persist long after they are gone. I really enjoyed this book: for the story, the insight it provides into Nigerian customs and traditions, and its simple, graceful prose. I will definitely seek out the author’s first book, Taduno’s Song.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Canongate Books, in return for an honest review.

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