A magical story of love, hate, redemption and forgiveness: A review of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “When We Were Fireflies” — Olukorede S Yishau

The sophomore novel of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the author of the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature-winning Season of Crimson Blossoms, is otherworldly. Like his first novel, this new one, When We Were Fireflies, has an opening that can compete as one of the best ever written: “The first time Yarima Lalo saw a train trundling into the Idu Station on a hot June day in Abuja was also the first time it occurred to him that once, many years before, he had been murdered in the carriage of an old locomotive with well-worn, seaweed-green seats.”

Aside from both novels having killer openings, they are poles apart, not in crisp, poetic-prose but in thematic concerns. 

This new work is a bit about the world we all can easily decipher but more about the other world, the margins, whose existence most people will forever query. It is a magical work rooted in realism. 

It is a novel that will remind one of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel,One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family. It will also bring to mind Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road about the abiku child, Azaro. Ibrahim adores both authors. 

Set predominantly in Abuja, Kafanchan and Jos, this novel is largely about Yarima Lalo, an artist, who during a visit to a train station, begins to recall that his present life is neither his first nor his second. Memories of how he had been killed more than once in the past start to unsettle him and make him seem to be losing his mind.

At the train station, he meets Aziza, a single mother who will play more than a passing role in his efforts to piece together the past so as to make sense of the present. 

This layered work is home to children who aren’t children, creatures who look 10 years old but talk and act like ancestors. It also has those called ‘absonders’ and the ‘unblind’. 

Aside from Yarima and Aziza, there are also characters like Libya and Kande, the artist’s mother who suffers from the Beauty Sleeping Syndrome, which forces her to sleep for days without waking up.

Yarima’s journals, which he writes about his early years in his attempt to understand the memories tearing him apart, open new vistas as we follow Aziza’s reading of the entries. Aside from the journals, aptly called Chronicles, he also paints out his memories on canvas. Reading the journals and looking at the artworks make Aziza first think he is insane. 

With the help of his memories and Aziza, he goes in search of people in his previous lives and his findings are mind blowing. 

Aziza’s parallel story is a major plot driver. Her travails with the family of her vanished ex-husband help build suspense and keep the reader turning the next page. She is one character feminists are bound to hail for the way she exercises her agency, even in the face of stiff opposition and palpable violence. Her strong nature strengthens Yarima Lalo’s equally strong personality. 

As serious as the thematic concerns of the novel are, there is dark humour that ignites smiles. One of such is where Yarima Lalo describes himself as ‘stupid idiot’ for following the instructions of a child to come to the popular Berger Roundabout in Abuja to see ‘fireflies collectors’ releasing souls of the dead.

Roundabouts, junctions and intersections in Abuja may be seen from a different prism after what Ibrahim makes of them in this book, which portray him as a writer incapable of writing a boring sentence. Every sentence, like they say in pop culture, is a hit back to back. 

He brilliantly reimagines the fantastical beliefs that shape the thinking of millions of us. And his use of real events, such as the Kafanchan riots, the capture and killing of Boko Haram founder and several others, roots his magical rendition in realism and teases believability and will set you thinking, make you ask questions, question what you know and imagine new possibilities. The insistent questions will be around reincarnation, not just its possibility but also the number of times one person can die and return to this world. There will also be questions about the possibility of creatures we can’t see (except we are unblind) co-existing with us. And then there can also be posers on being able to recall previous lives.

When We Were Fireflies has confirmed Ibrahim’s preeminent slot as a painter, not with canvas like Yarima Lalo, but with words. He makes you see what he is writing instead of reading it. His scenes can be felt because he takes you there with appropriate syntaxes. 

If When We Were Fireflies were a house, it is one painstakingly built, one brick at a time, the right concrete mix, appropriate pillars, well-fit furniture and ultimately habitable and cosy. If it were a cake, it is one well-baked, not too much icing, or sugar or flour, just the right mix. And if it were akara, it is one well-seasoned, well-mixed, well-fried and meant to be savoured bite by bite. For his precise and elegant voice, Ibrahim deserves to be read worldwide.

One more thing: There’s a character you need to meet in this magical story of love, hate, redemption and forgiveness because all through this character’s numerous appearances in the book, its dialogue never exceeds simply screaming:”Nama”. 

Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales. 


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