Grandmother Hajiya Binta and drug dealer Reza meet when Reza breaks into Binta’s house. He steals her jewellery and threatens to kill her but there is a moment between them; he returns in peace. The two begin an affair that must be hidden – not only is the age gap wide, in Binta’s culture it is shameful. As Binta hides the affair from her family and Reza tries to work out the conflict between his care for her and the murders he commits for others, we also see the trauma of Binta’s niece, Fa’iza, starting to slip through the cracks in the armour she created for herself when her father and brother were killed.
Season Of Crimson Blossoms is a book that looks at a fair few things, namely the emotions and sexuality of an older woman and the life of Reza; it also delves into corruption and religious conflict.
Ibrahim is one of those writers who writes the opposite gender really well and succeeds in giving life to the various ages of his characters. In many ways his book is about the effects of culture on women in conservative Northern Nigeria and it’s a well-rounded study. He looks at the effects of violence through memories. And it’s through Fa’iza’s story that Ibrahim’s talent sparkles for the first time.
When we hear about Fa’iza, beyond her liking for romantic novellas and film stars and television, it’s in the form of a flashback. In the space of a mere few pages, Ibrahim manages to provide the sort of shock most authors spend time leading up to – he shows us the reason Fa’iza can be quiet, the horror of what she experienced as a child. As men beat down the door to the family home, Fa’iza’s father has the family run to the bathroom where they stay cramped for some minutes before they are found. It is an incredible piece of writing, as stunning as if he’d been working on it for several chapters.
This is an unrelated moment to the one above, but it’s another, even more succinct, that shows Ibrahim’s skill:
He was there when the other boys spotted a girl in tight black trousers heading up the street. Her hair – permed in Michael Jackson Thriller style – streamed behind her as she swung her hips ostentatiously.
Then the chants started.
“Biri da wando!” the boys sang, running after her. Some ran ahead and pulled down their trousers and wiggled their little backsides before the embarrassed girl. The racket drew more boys from their houses and playfields and Yaro, too, was sucked in. Women in purdah came out and stood by the front door, trying to call back their sons, but their voices were drowned in the maelstrom.
Then the pelting started.
Missiles of damp mud struck the girl on her offending trousers, the imprint of dirt standing out starkly against the black of the nylon. She started crying, cowering and shielding her head from the missiles. The racket went up several decibels. Some women ran out and tried to dissuade the boys, but they were too many. In the excitement, they did not see Zubairu, who was not much taller than the biggest boys, until he reached out and grabbed his son. Like flustered bees, the boys scattered, dodging into neighbouring houses and running down slime-covered alleys. […] She poured in some damp guinea corn from the basin beside her and when she heard the flogging start, she began pounding. The harder the boy cried out, the harder Binta pounded, her pestle thumping heavily.
There is not too much of this type of scene; there doesn’t need to be – once you’ve read a few, with the narrative alluding to other situations, you’re all set, as it were, for the rest of the book.
Binta likes Reza because he reminds her of the son she lost. Reza likes Binta because her face reminds him of the mother who was never there for him, who left him, tore his hands from her hijab as she went to leave. Their relationship, as much as it’s sexual, is their way of grieving. Binta’s loss of her son, Yaro, is compounded by the fact culture forbid her from showing him, the oldest child, any affection. She always wished she could show him she cared because as an oldest child herself she’d experienced the same thing, knew what it was like to be neglected. And so her time with Reza, though sexual, could be seen as a penance, or a making up for what she didn’t do, spending time with someone who looks like Yaro who wouldn’t be far off his age. Whilst inappropriate socially, the relationship serves an innocent, important purpose.
At first appearing to be a case of a drug ring, Reza’s narrative expands to working for corrupt leaders. You see Reza’s conflict – on one side he’s assigned people to kill to help others get further on the board. Chess is alluded to. On the other side he has Binta spending time with him and nudging him to go back to school and gain an education. He’s always working on things Binta has no idea of; his oft-repeated ‘you understand?’ at the end of dialogues packs in different concepts: it’s the way he speaks, it’s a phrase with a lot of subtext behind it that differs every time, it’s the way Reza tries to signal warnings.
Ibrahim is very open about society, culture. This is what makes the character of Binta stand out – she’s taking a chance with Reza and is being led by her sexuality, talking of being free. Her relationship with her deceased husband was not a bad one per se, but she laments not having been able to enjoy their time together as a couple. She takes a chance in the name of sex, knowing she might be found out and worrying about it, but she’s led by her desire to be happy before she becomes too old. It would be shameful if she were found out.
The relationship between men and women and the differences between how they can live their lives are given time, too. Binta has a suitor but he’s never present in their conversations, always listening to his radio, preferring to talk about politics. The reality behind Binta’s daughter’s separation from her husband is revealed slowly – is she a bit over-the-top or is there something else? But at the end of the day, as much as it may be down to either or them, Hureira’s husband can take another wife.
I believe it was E Lockhart who said that a book should deliver a series of small shocks. Ibrahim’s novel is the best example of this idea I have ever read. Whilst it may not be a constant series of shocks – if it were you’d be at risk of becoming numb to it all – the 1-3 page horrors I spoke about earlier fit this perfectly. They’re short, small. They are a big shock due to Ibrahim’s ability to create such powerful scenes in such a short space of time.
Season Of Crimson Blossoms is a book to read slowly. Not because it’s boring or because you’re going through a patchy part but because you want to appreciate it, you want to think about what you are reading and you want to savour the writing; it’s a sort of close reading, only off the page. It’s really very good.
I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.