An uncommon death in the family: A review of Yewande Omotoso’s “An Unusual Grief” — Olukorede S Yishau
At the time Mojisola arrives Johannesburg from Cape Town, Yinka—her daughter who leaves home after catching her professor father pants down with his young assistant—is dead and buried.
Yinka was an unhappy child. Right from her teens she had shown signs of depression. Mojisola’s Johannesburg trip is to get to know a daughter long gone. She feels she can find answers in her daughter’s space in the crowded block of flats with a crazy landlady called Zelda.
This is the crux of Yewande Omotoso’s third novel aptly titled An Unusual Grief.
Mojisola sure finds answers: Some shocking, some otherworldly and others surreal. One of the shocking answers she gets is the identity of the person Yinka argued with on the phone before she ends it all.
The day she gets to the building she meets a landlady eager to rent out the flat and start earning revenue. She pays for it to have the chance to get the answers she is looking for. Soon she finds out her daughter was into weed and Zelda is not just a dealer but also getting high on her own supply. They start an unexpected dalliance.
She does crazy things in search of answers. In some instances, Mojisola disguises as her daughter to meet people she interacted with before breathing her last, one of them turns out to be a lover of BDSM ready to try his skills out on the older woman who is desperate to retrieve her daughter’s drawings in his possession. The drawings give insight into Yinka’s perceptions of her parents. It reveals much more.
Following a revelation from Zelda, Mojisola organises a memorial for her daughter, drawing the guests list from the last set of people she called. Her intention is to see if any of them plays any role in her death so she treats all the attendees as suspects by asking questions capable of exposing them. She ends up in most cases making them wonder if she knew her daughter at all, an awkward situation which leaves her explaining her knowledge gap. Emotions run high at the event, which ultimately turns out not a waste. It provides some missing details and yields a notebook Yinka kept. The notebook is emotional. It seems to be the best bit of this amazing novel.
On the surface, An Unusual Grief is about a mother and her dead daughter, but it is much more: It is also about a wife and a husband with a marriage on the brink. The book traces their early days in Ife, the arrival of their child, when things begin to go south and other minute details that flesh up this bittersweet rendition.
While the big picture is grief, this book explores modern dating and its risks, a parent’s unfaithfulness and a child’s disappointment, depression and its side effects, feline companionship, unusual friendships and breaking free from labels.
Secrets is a ‘hidden’ theme in this book. Omotoso, without being judgmental, explores the things people do out of public glare, especially in their sex lives. In the end, she shows that life is in cycles and what you see is not always what you get. There is more to people than even people close to them will ever find out.
Also, people have the capacity to surprise themselves, as is clear in the things Mojisola does after moving into Yinka’s apartment. It is initially about finding answers but she later realises it is also about her cravings, about letting loose after decades of suppressing herself.
Set in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Ife, the book brings alive these environs in such a way that they do not distract the storyline. The flora of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, find breathing space on many pages of this novel.
Aside from Mojisola and her daughter and Zelda, the novel has other memorable characters such as Jide and Titus, Mojisola’s husband. Jide is one hell of a character, his choices are the kinds that will engender debates—debates that in the long run will be unending. And Titus comes across as the typical chauvinistic man who finds it difficult to say sorry when he has committed a grave act. Innana, Yinka’s cat, also is a character worth recalling and P Machaivelli, also known as PM, may strike a chord in some readers. Then there is Wicus, aka the Woodsman. His connection to Yinka is one reason he sure will linger in minds.
The characters are well-chosen and developed, a development which gives this meditation on loss its identity, colour and panache.
The last bit of the book, Titus’ journal, is gritty. It unveils loopholes in the unfolding drama, it fills empty spaces and brings clarity to a number of things. It also raises posers, among which is whether depression is hereditary or not. The journal is like light at the end of the tunnel that painfully delights.
Omotoso’s prose is simple but certainly not simplistic. She appears to deploy words with empathy, perhaps because of the subject matter of grief.
Rendered in the third person, except the notebook segment and Titus’ journal, An Unusual Grief excites, shocks and illuminates. It puts light on the contradiction that love of any kind, be it between parents and children or husbands and wives, can sometimes be.
With this remarkable and intimate novel, Yewande Omotoso evokes a rich mosaic of broken peoples’ experiences. And through her characters’ interconnecting fates, she recreates the extraordinary routes grief can force us to take.
This is an author who can think and write!
-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