Saturday 28 April 2012

Despite the fickleness of time, I was able to finish reading Ifeanyi Ajaegbo’s debut novel, Sarah House, published by Picador Africa a few months earlier. I noticed that one recurring motif in the novel is the ubiquity of doors – doors are always either opening or closing, almost like in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, in which house recurs throughout the novel. Unlike Cisnero’s which is a short story cycle, that is, an interlinked collection of vignettes, almost like Doreen Baigana’s Tropical Fish, Sarah House is a compelling story of hope on the whole, particularly exploring though at a deeper level (like Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street) the sexual objectification of women, and the world of sleaze and filthy lucre. Ajaegbo’s writing is unhurried and confident, his diction controlled and tight – nearly as lean as Hemingway or McEwan’s prose, or El Saadawi. I hope to do a review of it once time and space befriend me, but who knows when? Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah House, a novel which tackles the grim theme of sex slavery and organ transplant trafficking, and the darkness in the heart of (Africa?) man.
Here’s an excerpt of Sarah House: The man between the doorposts was a total stranger. I closed my eyes and counted to ten behind my lids. When I lifted them, he was still there. A faint smile that was visible from where I sat on the bed hovered at the corners of his mouth. I wondered if he smiled for me. Or at me, because of my dishevelled appearance. Perhaps he had seen the bewilderment on my face, the doubt that he was real after my experience with Slim, the doubt that he could be more real than the bed and the bedspread that kept on dissolving and re-forming before my eyes. He took a couple of steps into the room. I wondered what would happen if I blinked. Would he vanish, like Slim? He stopped beside the bed. I realised that what I thought was a smile on his face was a long scar that ran the length of his chin, just beneath his mouth. The scar had not healed well and now the raw skin looked like a hideous mouth that would never close. Another scar ran down the right side of his face, starting from somewhere close to his hairline and disappearing just beneath the line of his jaw. The scars made him look like a dangerous and violent criminal. A man who could give as much physical punishment as he had obviously taken. A man to be scared of. ‘Nita.’ The scar under his chin moved grotesquely when he spoke. It stretched and contracted like a wicked parody of a talking mouth. I tried not to look at the scar, but failed miserably. I was fascinated by it and wondered what was used to inflict such hideous injury. ‘Nita,’ when I did not answer the first time. He seemed to have two mouths, one talking and moving just above the other. The one below seemed filled with raw skin when it moved, while the one above was filled with teeth that looked dirty and yellowed, even in the dim light. ‘Yes.’ That word came out reluctantly, in a stammer. I wondered who had told this aberration my name and why he needed to know it at all. What did he want? What was he doing here? Slim and Fatty were the only people who came here. They were the ones who sent Tega to convince me to go to ‘work’. Now this monster had simply walked through a locked door, or so it seemed. And he was alone with me in the room. Only Slim could have brought him here. To do what? The question rolled around in my mind. ‘Nice name.’ He lowered himself to the bed and sat down close to my feet. I noted instantly that he did not even bother to ask if he could sit near me. It was easy to see he was the sort of man who would not ask before he did a lot of things. People like this took liberties with everything, including the lives of others. He was a man to be watched and this did not surprise me. Tega and Matti had said enough to warn me that this was the type of man which inhabited this terrible place, this nightmare that was steadfastly refusing to let me out of its unwanted embrace. ‘They told me you are not used to strangers,’ he said. His voice was soft, but with a menacing edge to it. I wasn’t sure I had heard the words correctly. The objects in the room had resumed their melting and re-forming, leaving me unsure again of what was real and what was not. The bed started melting, and I hoped he would melt with it. But I hoped he would never re-form like I knew the bed would. I hoped he would stay melted forever. I wasn’t so lucky. He sat there like something carved out of an indestructible material as everything swirled around him. ‘I am here to help you,’ he said finally as the bed started reconstituting itself underneath him. ‘Help me? With what?’ ‘Help you to get used to strangers.’ ‘I don’t want to get used to strangers,’ I told him. He reached out and tried to touch me. I moved away from his groping hand, sliding towards the wall behind me. He kept reaching towards me, groping while I kept moving away till my back came up against the wall. There was no other place to go. A smile started on his face and widened. The grotesquely misshapen false mouth under his chin also stretched. Both of his mouths seemed to be mocking my helplessness. ‘Get used to strangers,’ he repeated as if he had not heard what I said.

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