Booker 2019: Masterful telling of a life thwarted by injustice

An Orchestra Of Minorities is Chigozie Obioma's second novel.
An Orchestra Of Minorities is Chigozie Obioma's second novel.PHOTOS: MAN BOOKER PRIZES/THE BOOKER PRIZE FOUNDATION, LITTLE/BROWN

FICTION

AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES

By Chigozie Obioma

Little, Brown and Company/Hardcover/ 443 pages/$45.86/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

A poultry farmer's doomed romance with a pharmacist-in-training lies at the heart of Obioma's masterfully composed story set in contemporary Nigeria.

An Orchestra Of Minorities, Obioma's second novel, begins with an encounter between Chinonso, the protagonist, and Ndali, a woman whom he tries to save from jumping off a highway bridge to her watery death. The two eventually fall in love.

Ndali's wealthy family objects to their union because Chinonso is uneducated. To make himself more acceptable to them, he sells everything he has and enrols in university in Cyprus. But when he arrives, he learns that he has been scammed and his life takes a bitterly tragic turn.

The novel is narrated by Chinonso's "chi", an ancient guardian spirit, and the story strikes the heart not with titanic disaster but its human, empathetic telling of a life thwarted and deformed by injustice.

"The world spins on the noiseless wheel of an ancient patience by which all things wait and are made alive by this waiting," Chinonso's chi observes. "The ill luck that has befallen a man has long been waiting for him - in the middle of some road, on a highway, or on some field of battle, biding its time."

The story is shadowed by an evil that slouches steadily towards the hero's proverbial garden of innocence. Some scenes are deeply uncomfortable, but so masterful is the storytelling that the reader cannot help but gaze on, transfixed, as Chinonso's world falls apart.

Obioma, 33, a rising star in the Nigerian and international literary scene, has been hailed by some as an heir to Chinua Achebe. But he also rivals - and outshines - A Thousand Splendid Suns author Khaled Hosseini in his seemingly effortless ability to orchestrate heartrending scenes of terrible, tragic intensity.

There are some false notes in the otherwise watertight minor-key narrative. The ending feels too pat and some things - such as the poor boy/ rich girl trope - border on soap opera cliche. But this familiarity could very well be the point - the story operates in a culture where time is seen as cyclical, where the disasters of the future "happened long ago, and had merely been patiently waiting".

If you like this, read: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Back Bay Books, $31.50, Amazon.com), a parable of four brothers in Nigeria who are torn apart by a terrible prophecy. It made the Booker shortlist in 2015.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2019, with the headline 'Masterful telling of a life thwarted by injustice'. Print Edition | Subscribe