What happened to Paul?
Jowhor Ile’s debut novel, ‘And After Many Days’, begins powerfully enough. 17-year-old Paul, the eldest of three children, goes out one day and doesn’t return. The story unfolds through the eyes of the youngest, Ajie, who is burdened with a sense of guilt, having been the last to see Paul. The void left by Paul and the bewilderment of his family are vividly conveyed: “The silence was so sudden and so pure, it seemed as if the clock on the parlour wall had come to life, the slender second hand scratching its halting way around like a cripple.” By the end of the first chapter, a sense of foreboding has been created, and the reader feels wounded on behalf of the Utus.
But the story fails to gather pace, and over a hundred pages later, we are no closer to tracing the central question of the narrative: what happened to Paul? By the time “Paul’s disappearance” is mentioned on page 177, it reads almost like a reference to a forgotten past. On page 193 we are told: “The absence of Paul would come to project itself, harsh and relentless, like a whistle at midnight. It would be a question mark hovering above the sentence of their lives, never knowing where to settle.” One wished the novel had reminded itself of the need to state this much earlier in the narrative.
What happens instead is that, straight after the scene setting of the opening chapters, the author goes back to a story of beginnings, to the births of the Utu children and their early relationships. Paul is more present than absent, as the novel renders a portrait of family life in Port Harcourt in the mid-90s. But it lingers there for too long; and in the back and forth of the back-story before and after the birth of the Utu children, it does get a tad confusing.
The physical description of characters is spare at best. Hardly anyone is described in enough detail for the reader to get a sense for what they look like.
At one point, the third person narrator states that: “Bibi hated her nose, and Ajie felt that with the way the thing was shaped, no one could blame her.” The reader is nonplussed, since we don’t actually get a description of the nose either way. As for Bendic, it is not until page 222 that the book yields an illuminating detail regarding his physical presence at age 67.
The children only really jump off the page during their all too brief spell at Uncle Tam’s house. Chapter upon chapter, we get a blur of childhood and domestic scenes, with few standing out or attaining greater significance. We read of: “This way that Paul had of becoming something after he had read about it; this way he had of claiming things for himself. He had joined himself to a we, an us.” But such fascinating insights are few and far between. Paul does not dominate the back-story in a way that allows sufficient build-up to resolving the question of his disappearance.
Sub-plots also seem to develop along divergent lines. The oil company’s despoliation of Ogibah and the military raid on the community – reminiscent of the real-life attack on Odi in Bayelsa State – are compelling but could have been the subject of another novel altogether. Potential tension points are compromised. For example, the reader does not feel the Utu children’s anxiety for their mum and dad on hearing news of the plane crash, because the clue to the parents’ survival is in the beginning of the novel.
Greater editorial vigilance would have entailed some restructuring, to mitigate the sag in the novel’s middle. The focalisation of the narrative through Ajie admits more than the character could have reasonably perceived or been privy to, especially in his younger days. From “Whom did they shoot?” (p227) – to “trash” used twice instead of “thrash” (p216) – editorial issues abound. Overly ponderous commas work against the syntactical flow in places. And there are some glaring tense mix-ups: “Ajie heard the gate rattle and thought it was Ma returning from church. He steps out and sees it isn’t Ma.”
‘And After Many Days’ reins itself in to finally focus on resolving the issue of what happened to Paul, in a quietly moving conclusion that’s both poignant and dignified. The author delivers some memorable passages along the way, like the savage poetry of this line: “One of the police has been lifted bodily, flung up into the night air, and abandoned, like a sacrifice, and the crowd parts to allow him land without impediment.”
Ajie, now 26, comes fully into his own. One of the novel’s strengths is its assured evocation of the passage of time on the characters and their community. This is the Niger Delta, and even the environment has changed: “The swamp is not there. The ponds are dried up, all the trees felled. No slowworms, no bamboo or bracken, no blackbirds pecking on a rotting palm trunk.”
‘And After Many Days’ poses the question: “How do you learn to work yourself up over something that’s not directly your concern?” In this preoccupation, Paul, the novel and the reader are in unison.
‘And After Many Days’ by Jowhor Ile; 287pp; Farafina (2016).