Dancing in the rain: a review of Achalugo Chioma Ezekobe’s “Mmirinzo” – Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
“Dancing in the rain”: a review of Achalugo Chioma Ezekobe’s Mmirinzo by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo.
“She was in her room but in another place. Asleep yet awake, and it wasn’t the first time” In case the title and the cover design (which I think is brilliant) had not made it sufficiently clear, those opening lines from Achalugo Ezekobe’s debut novel Mmirinzo drives in the realization that this is not going to be your regular tale. And without being so forceful on your imagination, they set the stage for what I will describe as a fantasy novel inspired by Igbo metaphysics, specifically the ability of certain persons to control rain. Olivia was born an Mmirinzo, a special breed of rainmakers who are rain in themselves, wielding the power to control water, and manifest dual presence through their dreams. The display of this unique gift is nothing short of what today’s Pentecostal driven Christianity will refer to as being possessed by marine spirits and so thought Olivia, who was completely oblivious of such a heritage, when she first began to experience the blackouts that teleported her to strange ceremonies as both a spectator and an active participant. With her twenty-eight birthday approaching, Olivia, a young, intelligent lawyer who is keen on developing herself into a great Alternate Dispute Resolution counsel has many things on her mind. There was her younger sister, Nwanneka’s impending wedding which came with the pressure and unsolicited pity, if not shame, from a society that expects the finding of love and life partners to follow the same order of birth. There was also the expected announcements of promotions at the law firm where she worked and her efforts to deliver on a case she was handling as a ticket to the game. The trances which besiege her existence, upending her life as she knew it and causing embarrassing scenes with no medical explanation will send into motion a series of events leading to Olivia ultimately making that journey to self despite the challenges. And she manages to make it just in the nick of time because the four Igbo market days when lined with the days of the month sum up to twenty eight, the age at which the cosmos or cosmic forces has destined that she was to come into her own, with far reaching consequences if she fails to. Mmirinzo makes an easy and interesting read. It is a fast paced, and well written effort at magical realism taking place among normal people, living their lives in an otherwise technological driven world. In many ways the work reminded me of Chukwuemeka Ike’s 1985 novel The Bottled Leopard which explored a different aspect of Igbo metaphysics involving the ability of men to acquire the powers of a Leopard. Achalugo very easily marries the daily realities of living in cosmopolitan Lagos of today with the magical world of her main character as though they were two sides of a coin, normalizing by so doing, a state of being that would otherwise be seen as weird, fetish or even devilish. While Olivia’s story is told in the third person, along with those of her friends, Joachim and Lola, that of their rather rigid senior colleague Leonard and those of her family members are delivered in simple and engaging language. But it is the alternate story in the book, told in the first person and printed in italics that I found even more captivating. This alternate story is that of Afulenu, the narrator, who shares as much prominence in this book as Olivia. She is Olivia’s aunt, the ‘Mother rain’ with the responsibility of helping Olivia on her journey to self.
Afulenu’s narration is rich, and the language poetic. Achalugo uses this to plumb the depths of the mystical world, painting a reality that is at once perfect and alluring yet scary and confounding. It is through Afulenu and her more enigmatic partner Erimma that the mysteries of the Mmirinzo powers are unraveled, slice after slice, like the peeling of an onion. There is no doubt that the author did some research or is well steeped in the Igbo culture. Real Igbo words (not italicized) and cultural references are used throughout the book. Concepts like the four market days, the art of divination, reincarnation, rain making, etc are explored to appreciable depths. The use of strong female characters in a story that would easily have been male dominated is also remarkable. One must observe that this book is not just about culture though. It is also a story of love, friendship, family and that unconscious yearning, which is universal, to become whole and find true meaning in this universe. This is Achalugo’s debut novel, and as is not uncommon with most first novels, has its share of troughs. There are moment where something happens in the plot that feels a little too convenient, or too simplistic. You could get the feel that a scene was being forced to make it consistent with the plot. The narrative is also straightforward with very little surprises or unexpected twists. More so, while the jury is still out on the use (or not) of prologues and epilogues in fiction, I found their use in this book to have been unnecessary as both sections can very easily stand as chapters of their own. With a few errors and omissions, there is no doubt that the novel would have benefitted from better editing and a richer publishing quality.
These lows hardly takeaway from the beauty of this work and its literary achievements. It is an impressive opening salvo by a fine young writer who is set to make a mark in Africa’s story telling spheres and as noted in one of the blurbs on the back cover of the novel, “…Achalugo came fully armed”.