Monday 12 September 2016

Butterfly fish by Irenosen Okojie

It's funny how the very things that once irritated you about a person were the things you missed most when they were gone. Like phone calls held together by an invisible current, or rummaging through markets because we were two creased people who needed steam ironing. Lately I tried to fill the silences with... anything.

When Butterfly Fish begins, London photographer, Joy struggles to pull the threads of her life back together after the sudden death of Queenie, her mother. She has never known her father.

She receives some support from her kind but mysterious neighbor, Mrs Harris who is more than a little odd.

The first time I met Mrs Harris, she’d told me she was certain that Buddy, her garden statue Buddha, had been eating her roses.

But it is Mrs Harris, who saves Joy’s life when she tries to commit suicide and ends up in hospital. Soon after, Joy receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother: a huge sum of money she knew nothing about, her grandfather’s diary and a unique brass warrior’s head from the nineteenth century kingdom of Benin. Joy doesn’t take much interest in the artefacts, she's grieving.

The bus finally arrived in Whitechapel. I pressed the stop button and hopped off, relieved at making it through a plethora of sweaty bodies. The streets were bursting, people swarming this way and that. I wondered who of them had lost their mothers, whose chests were now holes filled with the fragments of memories. There are certain lies you tell yourself to stumble blindly through the bereavement. After the reality cracks you in two, you tell yourself that things will be okay. That time will erode the numbness away...

Joy will eventually search for the origins of the head which moves the narrative backwards and forwards in time; from contemporary London to 19th century Benin and the story of Adeusa, who is forced into becoming a wife of the king. Back again to 1970s London, for Queenie’s story and further back to 1950s Lagos, through the diary of Peter Lowon, Queenie’s father, who is in the Nigerian army.

In 19th century Benin, a special event is being held at the palace, where all the young women have to bring a dish they have prepared, and the king will make his choice of a new bride from the maker of the best dish. Adesua, still young, persuades Emeka, the local tailor, to give her some special material so she has something to wear to the palace. Suddenly, she sees a monkey that jumps on her back, grabbing her hair, scratching her face and neck and drawing blood.

She raised her palm in defence but it shot its head forward and bit her finger. By the time Emeka and a few others reached her, she lay in a heap; there was no hair on the ground, no marks on her body, and no blood…It was a sign of things to come.

Back in modern-day London, Joy is haunted by a woman, who at first appears in the street or in photographs and signally the slow deterioration of Joy's mental health and descent into madness. When she goes swimming, a silver and purple fish appears in the water.

The fish stared at me; inside its filmy eye shuttered a mini camera lens. A crowd gathered around us. The fish's mouth opened repeatedly. it trembled, then heaved and a worn, brass key slick with gut slime fell out of its mouth into my hand.

Although dead, Queenie’s life is skillfully interwoven into the narrative. How she moved to London in the 1960s is pivotal to the story: the life she left in Nigeria and eventually the story of Joy’s conception.

Dark family secrets come to light as Joy unearths the ties between her mother, grandfather, the wife of the king, and the brass head’s pivotal connection to them all.

A spiritual successor to the tales of Marquez, Butterfly Fish masterfully combines elements of traditional Nigerian storytelling and magical realism with the London immigrant and black British multigenerational take of the legacy of inheritance.

At times I found it difficult to know what was real and what was not. This was because of the magical realism and stream of consciousness descent into madness, but that is not to say it isn’t enjoyable. It is. It's extremely well done and more a case of the reader letting go and going with the flow of the narrative. Haunting and compelling, Butterfly Fish is a powerfully told story of love and hope, of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone. The Benin scenes are particularly breathtaking. It is a story of epic proportions, skillfully held together by Irenosen Okojie, an author to watch out for in the future.

Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian-British writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask Award in 2016 and she was selected by Ben Okri as an emerging writer to watch during the London Short Story Festival 2015. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian and the Observer and her short stories have been published internationally, including Kwani 07 and Phatitude. Speak Gigantular is her new collection of short stories due for publication 15th September.

Butterfly Fish (2015) is published by Jacaranda Books

You can follow Irenosen on Twitter: @IrenosenOkojie

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