Choices and Dynamics of Power: A review of I.O. Echeruo’s “Expert in All Styles and Other Stories” — Olukorede S Yishau

One of the first things that may occur to you as you read I.O. Echeruo’s collection of short stories, Expert in All Styles, is that the characters are well-drawn. As you read further, it is unlikely it will be lost on you that his stories are explorations on power, political power, domestic power, religious power and the good and bad to which power is put. 

For instance, he puts the spotlight on intimacy and choice in the first story, “Aisha’s Dinner”. 

The story, narrated in first person by Hadja Mariam, is about a marriage where love no longer breathes and pretence is now the order of the day. We see Mariam remaining in her marriage that is blessed with two children and enduring the unsatisfactory intimacy and being cowed with religion. We can also see a hint that she is either ready to seek pleasure outside or she is already getting it. This story also explores how a wife is ‘intimidated’ by an in-law, who sees nothing wrong in invading their space, just because of past favours done to their husbands. In this same story, where one woman accepts to remain in a loveless union, we also see a non-conforming woman, who doesn’t care about what the society thinks of her choices. 

The second story, “His Excellency”, is also about power, this time political power. A governor, who helps a brilliant young man to acquire higher education abroad, is in trouble with the US Justice Department over money-laundering issues. The young man is now almost a partner in a big law firm in New York and the governor wants him to repay past favours. Before his meeting with the governor turned his life around, suffering was an acquaintance, a good ally. The story is also about this thing called love, the butterflies in our bellies and how with time they either die or wither for reasons we can not fully decipher or articulate and thus leave us with questions, questions to which we have no definite answers.

In “Communicable Disease”, the third story, Echeruo’s concern is navigating domestic politics. A wife is moving to Nigeria from Washington for an international health job and it is planned that the husband and their two boys will join her later. The husband, obviously reluctant to leave for Nigeria, is the narrator. His reluctance is because he feels the decision is hasty and ill-advised. Two perspectives are provided to make us better appreciate the circumstances: the first is from the husband’s point of view and the second the wife’s. The story also takes a swipe at chauvinism and sexism in the Nigerian society.

The fourth story, “Christian Mothers”, is a hilarious tale, still about power, power tussle between mothers in a Catholic Church parish in the Southeast of Nigeria. A priest, just posted to a parish, arrives to the scene of an old woman threatening to jump off the roof because her colleagues elected her rival to lead their group and the winner told her “don’t be silly” to quieten her. These are words that remind her of her husband, the one who allowed their only child to become a priest, thus denying her of grandchildren. 

“The Naming Ceremony”, the fifth of the 12 stories in the collection, is a complex story that requires patience to be fully appreciated and assimilated. It is also about power, the power of Yoruba tradition that makes a grandfather the centre of his son’s first child’s christening ceremony. It also subtly examines patriarchy, its unwholesome power and more. The story has scandal etched all over it: A man seeing vignettes of the past involving a missing brother, women discussing a husband’s role in a child’s disappearance and a revelation about a mother cheating on her serial cheater of a husband and still blaming herself for his excesses.

Another of the dynamics of power, this time religious, is the focus of Echeruo in “A Line of Fold-up Chairs and One Pastor”. The story revolves around Pastor Anozie Moses, who also works as an elevator operator, Chuka, his parents, and others. Chuka’s mother is one of those who gives essence to churches. Whatever the Pastor says must be God’s voice. Her husband, on the other hand, succumbs only when his fraudulent deals are under threat. There is more to this story.

The exquisite story titled “Love and Other Masquerades” is about the power of choice, the choice to live under the same roof with one person and be in love with another and also have children by them and give the children to the one you live with and call your spouse. It is a messy tale told with care and style in a textured and tempered language. Being narrated by an old woman now beaten by time makes it read like a confessional and adds to its allure. 

The power of choice and its contradictory tendencies also find expression in “The Place At A Bend In The River”, a tale of a man with a wife but whose cravings for the youthful body of a pharmacist lure him out under the guise of taking walks. It is like an attempt by the author to balance the earlier story and show that taking dangerous love decisions is not the exclusive preserve of any gender. Women can match men in being bad, the story seems to scream.

“In the Convalescent Ward” is “laced” with sexual imagery like the two stories preceding it. Narrated by a woman whose husband is likely to start snoring when he was still erect in her mouth, it tells of the sights, sounds and smells of a clinic in Owerri, the Imo State capital. The “madness'” witnessed by the narrator, who is a nurse, gives the energy to drive the narration. The author also digs out other elements to give us a story to remember. 

We meet people we know, people who could be our neighbours, friends, colleagues or frenemies in “We Told Wonderful Lies”, a tale with soul, wit and more. It starts on a very dark note, where Maximum’s body “lies still”. This funeral scene propels this narration, which is better experienced, than being told about. The choices we make and what they cost us shape this tale. It is also about the lies we tell at funerals. 

The titular story is about a barber who works in a salon whose owner claims expertise in all hair styles. It tells of what barbers endure, such as customers with a pungent smell and the frustration of running such a business in a country like Nigeria, where epileptic power supply is the norm, where people are alarmed when power supply is stable for a few days. 

The last story in this memorable package, “The Lake Chad Club”, is about a University of Maiduguri don, Prof Kyari, and his family. But, they are just tools the author employs to examine another layer of power and choices. In this story, some people’s choice is to become terrorists and use their power to cut short lives and commit all kinds of atrocities. It is a sad story, but it is well told that the sad turn of events in it doesn’t matter more than the messages being passed across.

Expert in All Styles and Other Stories is a collection with all the ingredients needed for a great read. With beautifully observed stories teeming with scandals, sorrow, tears, blood, violence and sex, this is a gorgeous collection that probes us as a people. Whether you are a saint or sinner, you will feel seen while reading this debut work of fiction.

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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