Voice of America, By EC Osondu

A debut that comes up a little short
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Iread this debut collection's opening story in the New Statesman, where its unsentimental account of boys jostling for food in a refugee camp complemented the magazine's egalitarian, internationalist tone. Acapulco, Orlando, Lousy and Sexy, all named for the messages on their hand-me-down T-shirts, rattle around the camp reckoning the long odds on any of them being adopted by a Westerner. Killing time between food and water deliveries, the needy boys prepare to scramble for meagre daily offerings of Red Cross soup. In banter that feeds off rumour, Osondu captures the boys' vulnerabilities and essential humanity, mediating the distant Western world through the prism of their forlorn hopes.

The setting for most of Osondu's tales is Nigeria, or they show Nigerians scraping by in America. Several other stories offer the same grainy capture of men and women struggling to cope with or improve mostly adverse situations. "Bar Beach Show" musters a sense of foreboding as a morally stern man takes his wayward boys to witness the public execution of armed robbers, while "Janjaweed Wife" views the conflicted efforts of a displaced mother to find a secure home.

Paiko is arrested in a brothel raid while waiting for his girlfriend to finish with her last client: his tribulations in "A Simple Case" make for a spirited yarn with a satisfying twist. Osondu's rolling prose introduces a clutch of colourful characters, but too few of the fictions collected here manage to deliver that final twist. Too many have the ambience of vignettes, yielding intriguing glimpses of Nigerian life but lacking the tautness required to give short fiction that necessary strong punch.

Osondu won the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing and this debut promises much – even if a little more intensity and emotional nuance could be distilled from the author's young cast. Drawing in spirituality and superstition as well as the friction within families (which so often centres on the role and place of women), many of Osondu's stories are resonant of The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's story collection. Adichie's quietly determined Nigerian women juggle anxieties, aspirations and a stoical yearning for personal independence. Osondu plumbs similar ethnic and ethical conflicts, but his genial prose has a comparatively muted emotional palette, rarely generating a depth of conviction, anguish or delight.