Dazzling By Chikodili Emelumadu Review – An Otherworldly Vision Of Nigeria

Chikodili Emelumadu

A boarding school is the backdrop for a metaphysical journey in this magical-realist debut


his British-Nigerian debut, part boarding-school story and part Igbo metaphysics, is about the strange, otherworldly experiences of two friends, Ozoemena and Treasure, in a school in upcountry Nigeria. The two meet following family tragedies. When Treasure’s father dies, her family loses everything to grasping uncles. One day she meets a spirit who promises to bring her father back if she agrees to help it. And in exchange for finding it “wives”, the spirit will also bring her material goods. It’s a tempting offer, as the family owes rent and has barely any money for provisions. We are not surprised when she agrees.

In a somewhat similar vein, her friend Ozoemena’s alternative identity as a leopard arises from the murder of her uncle Odiogo. Odiogo had been a vessel for the leopard spirit; after his death, a new receptacle is needed to continue the family tradition. This spirit is part of the mythology of a secret Igbo sect that worships the goddess Idemili, previously introduced to non-Igbos by Chinua Achebe in the novels Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah. “Soon you will become the thing that all other beasts of the night fear,” the deity’s priest tells Ozoemena, when he announces her new avatar.

Other details that the priest tells Ozoemena we already know from the opening chapter: a man, possibly enslaved or a fugitive criminal, arrives in a town by a river, watched over by the goddess Idemili. This prologue is set in the days of slavery, when white merchants were feared.

The next chapters bring us back to the present. Ozoemena’s story alternates with sections about Treasure, her family story and her interactions with the spirit world. These are delightfully rendered in Nigerian pidgin rather than the formal English used in the rest of the novel. Of a woman who uses skin-lightening creams, for instance, Treasure tells us: “Mama Uju’s yellow is forcing-yellow, like a mango that has been tied in a waterproof bag to ripe it quick before selling.”

The boarding school is a compelling setting, and stories exploring metaphysical phenomena are a cornerstone of all literatures, including the African oral tradition. Chikodili Emelumadu is undeniably talented, yet there is something missing in the way she has brought these genres together. It’s as though she isn’t sure what the story is supposed to accomplish, or whether Treasure, Ozoemena or the school itself should propel the narrative. The inner workings of the deep Igbo metaphysics driving the novel are incompletely articulated, leaving outsiders adrift.

The book is lit up by wisecracks, folk wisdom, the idiosyncrasies of boarding-school life, and those quirky turns of phrase Nigerians have given to the rest of humanity (“Where he is going, there is no road” or “Let me not drink Panadol for headache that is not breaking me”). But the overall impression is of a novel not fully realised. Ozoemena’s transformation into her leopard self fails to suspend disbelief; and while Treasure’s encounters with her spirit interlocutor are deftly conjured, other surreal interactions remain flat, leaving this reader frustrated.