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Chigozie Obioma

There is a recurring motif of someone switching on a light bulb in Jowhor Ile’s laudable first novel, “And After Many Days.” The book begins in Nigeria in 1995, when the country was shrouded in literal and metaphorical darkness — plagued by war, corruption, and frequent and annoying power cuts. But this idea of a light that has gone out also applies to the family at the center of the book, a family whose own light is to be snuffed out by tragedy.

“And After Many Days” follows the Utus, a middle-class and well-­respected family living in Port Harcourt whose 17-year-old son, Paul, “the exemplary firstborn,” goes out to visit a friend and never returns home. The Utus are thrown into confusion, then despair. “To tell Paul’s story, you would have to start from before he was born,” Ile writes, and the novel wheels back into the family’s past, from the arrival of the British colonial government and Christian missionaries in Nigeria through the civil war. We encounter the family at the height of their happiness seen through the perspective of Ajie, the youngest child, who saw Paul last and blames himself for his brother’s disappearance: “Guilt rose like tidewater up to his chest and made breathing very difficult. If anyone could have spared Paul from going missing, it should have been him.” We stay with Ajie for decades, until he discovers what has happened to his bro ... Read Full Review

There is a recurring motif of someone switching on a light bulb in Jowhor Ile’s laudable first novel, “And After Many Days.” The book begins in Nigeria in 1995, when the country was shrouded in literal and metaphorical darkness — plagued by war, corruption, and frequent and annoying power cuts. But this idea of a light that has gone out also applies to the family at the center of the book, a family whose own light is to be snuffed out by tragedy. “And After Many Days” follows the Utus, a middle-class and well-­respected family living in Port Harcourt whose 17-year-old son, Paul, “the exemplary firstborn,” goes out to visit a friend and never returns home. The Utus are thrown into confusion, then despair. “To tell Paul’s story, you would have to start from before he was born,” Ile writes, and the novel wheels back into the family’s past, from the arrival of the British colonial government and Christian missionaries in Nigeria through the civil war. We encounter the family at the height of their happiness seen through the perspective of Ajie, the youngest child, who saw Paul last and blames himself for his brother’s disappearance: “Guilt rose like tidewater up to his chest and made breathing very difficult. If anyone could have spared Paul from going missing, it should have been him.” We stay with Ajie for decades, until he discovers what has happened to his brother. Ile begins the book with assurance and authority. In evoking Paul’s disappearance, he creates an atmosphere of ominous tension and renders the grief of the family in restrained and moving language. He has a particular talent for selecting the perfect details that make even a passing moment come to life: “Ajie once saw a bride, her dress blindingly white in the sunlight, her pineapple hairstyle tightly gelled and held down with a tiara, alight from a black Benz with visible encouragement from her cohort. They had flagged down an okada for her while she snaked her way through the traffic with her maid of honor on her tail.” The bride hops onto the motorbike to get to her own wedding in time, sweating lightly and gripping her “pink and yellow and plastic” bouquet. So readers might be baffled after the first three chapters when all four wheels of the novel come flying off beneath it. What began as a suspenseful story of a disappearance suddenly becomes a quiet study of a family, at a very quotidian level, mostly. In the absence of plot, however, the novel gathers a different kind of energy, and a political subplot. It shuttles between settings and years to tell the story of Nigeria’s troubled oil-rich regions, and the families who are frustrated to find their fate in the hands of powerful oil corporations and every disagreement settled by violence. “Disputes are no longer settled with raised voices in a meeting,” Ile writes. “People no longer write strongly worded petitions to voice their dissent. If you disagree with someone these days, you simply go over to the person’s house with your face unmasked and shoot him… The body count is on a steep rise.” But some harm is done with this swerve in pacing and focus. Paul’s disappearance loses its impact, so by the time the novel circles back to him, most readers will not care. And the close third-­person perspective is poorly handled; too often observations and reflections feel implausibly, and even erroneously, forced on Ajie. The voice that distinguished the early sections turns passive and awkward, reappearing only intermittently until the last act, in which we discover Paul’s fate. The novel ends with Ajie turning on a light, ending a story that has scarcely just ­begun.

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