Author: Ukamaka Olisakwe
Pages: Paperback, 304 pages
Publisher: Piraeus Books LLC
Reviewer: Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu
“It was the eyes. . .”
Thus starts Eyes of a Goddess, Ukamaka Olisakwe’s debut novel. Simple words.
I read somewhere that the best way start to a novel or short story is to do something as crazy as throwing your characters out of a plane and then doing a back story that tells your readers how they got to be in the plane in the first place—or something in that line. That advice came from a renowned writer. I cannot recall whom exactly. Whoever it was, I think Ukamaka either paid heed to him or discovered the formula herself.
On one level, Eyes of a Goddess is the story of an orphaned girl struggling to survive life’s harsh realities. She is no ordinary girl, for she wields the power of a Goddess—a power she struggles to understand and control. The story is one of quest, the quest for Njideka to find her place in the world and understand the enormous power that moves within her. The story of Njideka unfolds in bits and each revelation leads to more questions and the suspense builds and builds, provoking that urge to flip to the last pages and find the waiting answers. But no, you do not skip pages. You cannot skip pages, for the writer enthrals you in a web that grows. The prologue of Eyes of a Goddess hits you smack in the face and stays. You are immediately drawn into the world of Njideka, the main character. You follow her as she carries a basin of water into her mother’s room, you watch with her as Mama looms over her, you hear the bile in Mama’s voice when she says, “Asim, did you put nsi in my food, the same one you used to kill my baby?” You feel the blows when Mama strikes, you feel the hot soup seeping into Njideka’s eyes, you feel her clothes rip off her and when she finally curls into a foetal position, you weep with her and follow her into reminiscence. You go with her because you want to know what came before—you want to know why a mother would treat a daughter thus. The beauty of Ukamaka’s prose lies in her ability to take you inside the character in that brief instance. But, there is more to it.
On another level, it is the fictionalised story of Anambra State during the Bakassi Boys era. Anyone who lived in Anambra between 1999 and 2003 would find those times painted in bold and very real colours in this book. It captures the hopeful anticipation with which the people welcomed the coming of the Bakassi Boys—aptly.
“‘Njideka my daughter, the light is about to shine on us again,’ he said to me days after the governor was sworn in, and also after the Governor commissioned a group of young men in our state, the vigilante boys, to bring back order.
In the first week of their operation, the vigilante boys executed and burned criminals. The newspapers bore the news of these killings. In fact, for the press it was a very good headline, and daily you would see the charred remains of these criminals on the front pages of the newspapers. ‘God is using darkness to flush away darkness.’”Page 12.
. . and soon enough, the despair that followed, when the saviours turned on the community—
“The sky wore a dark veil the next morning, when vigilante boys, dressed in blood red shirts and black drawstring trousers, stormed our home. I was sweeping away the dead leaves with our bunch of palm fronds when they came. They kicked away the already weak gate, some jumped into the compound. They did slow circular dances and gyrations in the compound, shouting back at each other, a ruse to scare us out of our skin.
I stood frozen, the bunch of palm fronds slipping out of my hand. Then, they punched on me. Their leader, a man with a mean set of eyes in his dark face, a face so black I wondered if he painted it himself, asked where papa was. I stared at him, at his bloodshot and red-rimmed eyes, at the continual twitching arch of his eyebrows. I couldn’t get words past my throat.
‘Wey dat mad man?’ he drawled, ‘Wey ya father?’
I crashed to the ground when he slapped me, a swift motion of his left hand swung at my face.” Page 24.
On yet another level, Eyes of a Goddess is the story of the old Gods. It tries to show the old Gods for what they truly are—supernatural beings that were a part of the everyday life of our ancestors. The book does not paint the old Gods as offshoots of the Judeo-Christian devil family as many new-age preachers would have us believe. The old Gods in Eyes of a Goddess are protectors whose reverencing subjects abandoned when the new Gods came. When it moves away from the known world, as it does often, Eyes of a Goddess transits in a manner that does not leave you confused. You know you have travelled to the land of the spirits and that you are travelling with Njideka, who will bring you back. Njideka is a believable character and her search for identity does not leave you wondering—“why always her!”
Despite the inherent beauty, Eyes of a Goddess does suffer. It suffers from want of a more perfect editing, a lack that cause aspects of the story to grate when it could have been all fluid. You are left with a sense that the story could be tighter, that the language could have been more consistent, the real life characters more factually represented—for one thing Abdulsalam’s white beard only became noticeable after he had left office. Being Igbo, I could see that the author struggled with several Igbo words and thus needs to get her Igbo game up to scale.
On my part, I find fault with the inclusion of the real Nigerian history Igwe tragedy and now fully understand what a reviewer meant when he wrote that a particular book should have ended halfway through. Eyes of a Goddess’s WOW ended on page 157, everything else was just addendum.
These issues do not diminish the amazing talent that is Ukamaka Olisakwe but it does make it all the more clear that we desperately need professional editors in the Nigerian literary scene—professionals that do nothing else but edit. And yes, every writer should be willing to pay very well for that service.
Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu is a fiction writer, freelance editor and literary critic based in Lagos, Nigeria.