Uncanny Stories Told in a Long But Delightful Form
Title of Text : The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth
Author: Obinna Udenwe
Year of Publication: 2023
Reviewer: Denja Abdullahi
The art of short story writing is one in which there were some earlier held erroneous impressions in the Nigerian literary firmament that our writers seem not be too enamoured of it or that they fall short of the required literary competence. This perception made the Association of Nigerian Authors(ANA) at a point in time to introduce a special literary prize entitled ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories, endowed by a past president of the Association, Dr Wale Okediran,who is the current Secretary-General of the Pan-African Writers’Association(PAWA) headquartered in Accra ,Ghana. The Caine Prize for African Writing, which many Nigerian writers have won in the past ,has also played a significant role in increasing the attention to the art of short story writing aming Nigerian writers. However, in recent times, within the corpus of evolving Nigerian literature, we have seen masters of the art gradually emerging. We have names like Chuma Nwokolo, Molara Wood, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim , Lesley Nneka Arimah, Lola Akande and now Obinna Udenwe who have all given readers collections of short stories told from diverse perspectives and styles ,all opening up the many tales that exist within our Nigerian conundrum. These aforementioned writers are also notable novelists and award winning writers , some of whom have won notable literary prizes at home and abroad.
There was therefore an expectation of quality from the reader before delving into the collection of eleven(11) short stories, many rendered in the long form , by Obinna Udenwe with the intriguing title The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth. The expectation of quality is borne out of the fact that almost all the authors’ previous major works, mainly novels ,have come up for one award or the other. Satans and Shaitans won the ANA Prize for Prose Fiction in 2015 and Colours of Hatred was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2021 and won the first edition of ANA’s Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature for that same year.
Beyond the intriguing title of the collection in the declarative mode, almost becoming the fad in the business of prose work titling these days, we encounter eleven stories of uneven length , most going beyond the usually expected length of a normal short story but all riveting enough to keep the reader’s attention.
The first story in the collection entitled “John 101 or The New Ridiculous Way to Commit Suicide and Be Famous” is all about an eccentric and psychologically disturbed character fond of writing and posting letters religiously to world leaders , espousing his quaint ideas about world order. This character lives in a slum, in which he is an enigma within that conundrum, inspiring misguided youths to futile political actions and sometimes instilling dread in them from his quirky ways. At the end, an unusual kind of love found him, though he is largely unaware of that and drove himself to a kind of horrific meaningless suicide in protest against the world order. The first story reads like the beginning of a novel, with the central character, the enigmatic John, depicted like a typical psychologically disturbed honcho one would find in a real Nigerian ghetto and in other fictions set in that kind of environment.
In the story “It Has to Do with Emilia” the story is about an out of job man visited by two female Jehovah Witnesses on evangelistic mission which later turned to a regular familiar visits by one of the women,married though, to the man’s house with all the attendant sexual tension that remained strangely unconsummated until the the tale of the lady’s suicide was brought to the man’s house by her husband. This particular story is told so cryptically with all the nuances ,tensions and unspoken silences and gestures that it is not unexpected to read in the acknowledgments that that particular story has been made into a movie in South Africa.
“Melancholy” is a story set somewhere in Kenya about a lady coming out of jail after spending some years there for killing her husband in a fit of rage over his dating another woman. She returns to a faithful servant that has kept watch on the house the couple used to live in before the gory incident and the memory of the troubled marriage and of a tragic history seemingly being passed from mother to daughter comes rushing back.
“The Housekeeper” reads like a horror fiction of a mysterious lady housekeeper who gets engaged by a high society lady living alone but ends up giving the house-owner a kind of mysterious erotic massage along with her fun-seeking friend, soaks them in an acidic mixture and flushed their remains down the toilet bowl. Then comes a plumber called Dad Okere ,invited by the mystic masseur housekeeper, now house-owner, to free the blocked drains but who in turn gets caught up in the elaborate deadly web of seduction, ostentation and the frightening tale of “two women who vanished after they got the massage of their lives.”
In ‘’ Obama Talorin Shop” Obinna Udenwe breaks the melancholic and tragic predilection of the earlier stories in the collection to recount a story that may have come straight from the world of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novels and short stories in its ribaldry and focus on the morally corruptible influence of a lady’s exaggerated posterior on simple erstwhile respectable village men. The lady in question, Ama, returns to a village from Port- Harcourt to open a tailoring shop and the women of the village became apprehensive at the mere sight of her grotesquely sensual physique while the men went berserk. Soon the sensuous provocation in her appearance and coquettish ways turns to a tragedy of passion in the little village as men devise all sorts of debauched schemes to get her attention.
In ‘’The Redemption of Father McGettrick” , a hapless man ,seemingly being followed by a generational curse gets obsessed by the fact that the last act he saw his wife Adaugo doing before leaving him was reading Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man. This obsession leads to sexual dysfunction with the same wife before she left with their only daughter and afterwards, a kind of psychological torment seizes him, making him to engage in fruitless research on the author on the internet using his phone to possibly unearth why the wife abandoned him in the course of reading the book. This particular story is the most psychological in the collection characterized by the central character ,Father McGettrick , entering into the dreamworld foray into the past and the present ,conversing with masquerades, forbidding relations and even the author Zadie Smith , all in a bid to understand a failed life capped with a failed marriage.
“The Widow Who Died with Flowers in Her Mouth,’’ the title story, appears to be the most complex story in the collection. It tells a convoluted tragic tale of a medical doctor,Phillip Mwani, who trained in Russia and a Russian wife, Tsetsiliya, who came to live with him somewhere in East Africa where he practices his profession. The coming of the Russian wife,her beauty and affability sets a whole lot of sanguine events going on in the small town. Later on, a carefree play in the rain by the doctor and the Russian wife with their guests at a small house party leads to the sparking of strange desires and covetousness which soon leads to the sudden death of the doctor in a freak accident. The widow of the medical doctor, becomes an object of possessive obsession among her husband’s erstwhile close friends but she makes an unexpected choice that confounds the suitors and she is found dead the next day with flowers in her mouth by her house-help Cordelia. The story does not end there as the property left by the deceased couple is initially spurned by the family of the doctor. But after a long period of time when the faithful house help Cordelia and her daughter have built their lives and dreams around the property, thinking the family have lost all interest with the passage of time, someone from the Mwani family suddenly turns up to claim it.
“The Tamarind” is set in the rocky and conflict- ridden city of Jos in North Central Nigeria. It is an unusual love story between an oversized girl, Salamatu and an enterprising but philandering lover Jang Quidom, who takes delight in retreating with his conquests to a boulder beside a tamarind tree on top of a rocky projection overlooking the city of Jos. Their fledgling love wrestles with the uncomfortable memories of the past affairs of Jang Quidom. Salamatu, a wayfarer in Jos , soon relocated back to Abuja and their love could not survive the distance ,coupled with the strange dalliances beside the tamarind tree. Eventually Salamatu gets a message from Jos after a while that Jang,now operating a modern lounge called The Tamarind, has been killed in an attack on the place by Fulani Herdsmen.
Another Horrific tale in the collection is “All Good Things Come to an End.” It is about a childless couple, Efe and Chinwe. The normal tension of infertility in an African setting plays out between the couple and their relations with the husband threatening to get a second wife if the wife fails to conceive. Soon the wife conceives after visiting all sorts of places for assistance. She refuses to adhere to ante-natal medical protocol and delivered something monstrous that had to be discarded. Accusation of misdeeds and infidelity becomes rife between the couple and the husband contemplates and brings in another wife. All along strange aura, cries and apparitions become the sing-song in their living abode after the monster half-child was discarded. Chinwe moved out and filed for divorce when the second wife comes in. The second wive, Kufre, conceived, gave birth to a girl but the child died soon mysteriously. The man Efe is eventually left alone in a house haunted by cries from two dead babies and his whole world comes crashing down .
“ Things Not Seen” is a story that takes the quarrying into the supernatural further ,going by the title , as it is about a relationship between a young medical doctor, Ikenna and lady, Ugonne, his patient whom he cured of infertility. Their relationship from the very beginning is marked by visitation of cats and other creatures with strange behaviour, signposting some spiritual dissonance in the burgeoning relationship. The series of strange occurrences lead the young doctor to start losing his mind and made Ugonne to seek the natal family of the doctor to report the matter. The visit leads to the unearthing of stranger happenstances bothering on incest and the spiritual consequences of such a relationship.
The last story in the collection “Everything is not Enough” can be called a meta fiction in which an unusual relationship develops between an Ordinary National Diploma holder but worldly-wise, young, car -wash owner and a young attractive female upwardly-mobile university professor of literature. The relationship between Anugo, the car wash man and Sylvia the professor ends in a marriage riddled with uneven passion, battles between the expectations of a patriarchal society and the loving reality of the couples and ultimately gets weakened by insecurities and the crave for imaginative independence. The story is well told with lots of inter-textual references to contemporary literary texts by renowned African authors which explore the human conditions. These references are embedded in conversations between the couple who both have a passion for reading; one for general entertainment and the other as a teacher and a scholar. The exciting relationship describes deftly in succinctly beautiful expressions in the story eventually succumbs to the tugging of disapproving society, leading to a separation , the insertion of a more conforming relationship on the part of the man and a sudden re-appearance of a presence that may unsettles the given again.
Nearly all the stories in this collection reads more like part of a longer piece and have the possibilities of further extensions; maybe that is the unique feature of the “long form” as the author puts it in the “Author’s Note.” The stories are all delightfully written in the third person point of view with a general air of melancholy, disappointment and quiet personal tragedy pervading most of them. The locale of the tales are interspersed between the familiar and the unfamiliar for the Nigerian audience but the various themes will be very relatable to the African reader . It can be said that this third offering from the desk of Obinna Udenwe, from this reviewer’s perspective, will meet with the expectations of those who have read his earlier works.