Paul turned away from the window and said he needed to go out at once to the next compound to see his friend.
I don’t like books with clunky first sentences. I don’t like contemporary realistic books about disappearances and grieving families. Because of this, I don’t know why I picked up And After Many Days.
But by page 6 I knew I was in it until the end.
Yes: Paul, the oldest and most-beloved of three siblings, leaves his Nigerian home one day and doesn’t come back. Cue the sobbing; cue the screaming; cue the hyperbolic prose in face of a heart-slashing tragedy.
Or let’s try this:
[The Utu family] sat in the parlor until long after midnight. Twice the lights went out, but no one moved[.] … The silence was so sudden and pure, it seemed as if the clock on the parlor wall had come to life, the slender second hand scraping its halting way around like a cripple.
When I read this whole paragraph – several sentences longer than the excerpt above – my throat tightened and my stomach flipped. Jowhor Ile never writes ‘grief,’ ‘sadness,’ or ‘worry.’ He doesn’t depict the individual reactions of mother, father, sister, brother. They’re a family waiting up for the son who should have come home hours ago; their hope and fear is too intermingled and too delicate to verbalize. They all sit in silence and, in depicting that silence, Ile makes every emotion felt without describing one.
And then the tension wavers and releases. We go back in time, learning about the wealthy Utu family and their community. Ma is well-educated, ambitious, fiercely loving and strict. The father is equally intelligent, a respected and moralistic local judge. There is Bibi, the ferocious and adorable little sister; Ajie, our often-narrator so overshadowed by his brother; Paul, a lead student and named after the apostle.
I was touched by the flashbacks of Bibi, Ajie, and Paul as children because it brought back my own past – I had forgotten how intense every small interaction seems to a child, and how quickly playdates devolve into fisticuffs and screaming.
Ajie’s days are full of swimming in the local swamp and mirroring his brother, but as he grows up his community changes: The government decides to put oil pipes down in their village. Here Ile links environmental ruin with a community’s unraveling. To the corrupt government, neither land nor the citizens on the land may be permitted to block the path to profit. The old ways of communal values and collective discourse turn into government-fueled anarchy and carnal.
There is the old, there is the new. Both cannot survive.
Draw yourself a straight line, walk backward on it to erase your footsteps, and you will trip and crack your skull. Straddle the two sides of a stream and you will unhinge your hips. Be unstable as water and you will not excel.
Nigeria is a violent place and has grown more unstable. Ile deals with violence frankly and honestly but gently. Rather than saying that women are raped, for example, he says they are “taken by force.” This does not distort the meaning; it does not soften the blow. But it refuses to dramatize or tantalize. When students are beaten by the police, Ile says so. He focuses not on the blood and gore but on the pain of it, the pain of beaten bones and heartbroken parents. He never cheaply titillates the reader. The story is rich for it.
So what exactly happens to Paul? If you read the book, you will find out. Ile gives closure. While reading I was afraid the book would have an ambivalent ending: Oo0o0o0oh, this is literary fiction, so you don’t get a spelled-out ending. Ile tries no such trick; he treats the Utu family and the reader with respect. The words resonate. (SPOILER AHEAD SPOILER AHEAD SPOILER AHEAD) Ile offers us one of the best funeral scenes I’ve read, the prose simultaneously as understated and full of feeling as it was on page 6.
The dead will not be consoled; neither will those who live in the skin of their dead.
And After Many Days explores how years of love, education, and bonding cannot undo the consequences of a split-second act of violence. Years of life cannot cancel out death.
Several minutes after finishing this book, I went on Goodreads and rated it. I turned on my phone and received a message. A friend of many years – in his twenties – died a few hours ago. His memorial service is on Sunday.