Chikere A. Agbo’s debut novel Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled welcomes you with open arms of innocence.
The novel sets the scene with a ghastly motor accident at a police checkpoint where the almighty Andrew experiences first hand the notorious Nigerian police brutality. He is taught the lesson of his life and is pulverised both physically and mentally by corrupt policemen on duty for daring to question the roadblock set up on a highway. This proud and powerful man is broken down to his weakest state by a police force as brutal as the reigning military head of state of the time. Andrew who criss-crosses the length and breadth of Eastern Nigeria doing his logging business to make ends meet and take care of his wife, Betty and their children is broken, traumatised and hospitalised.
As the story picks up, we see from afar, the pier of dreams being laid for their children by this father and the loving, but subtly manipulative, matriarch, Betty. Andrew sends his children to the best of schools, feeds them with the best of food and ensures that they lack nothing. His seemingly stable, promising and admirable Christian family is fully under his control. Although Betty is a well-formed practising Catholic mother who recognises the place of God in their lives, she is also rooted culturally enough to recognise her husband’s place and importance in their family. You’ll see this in the way she reacts to seeing a battered Andrew on a hospital bed. Andrew on his part, knows the place of God in his life. And also, the place of his work and what the work provides in maintaining the high standard of life he has set for himself and his family. Nothing and no one can come between him and his ambition. He is even ready to rebel against Fr. Thomas and face the consequences of being denied his access to the sacraments. The irony is that while he battles the church, the biggest contract of his wood logging business is given to him by the Christian Men Association, an organisation in the same Church.
For Betty, the accident is probably a consequence of her husband fighting God. She reiterates that Andrew must know where to draw the line between his dreams and plans for his family and the act of offending God. As the family swims in this maelstrom of faith and pragmatism, a new problem unleashes itself. Nedu, Andrew and Betty’s first son, announces he wants to be a Catholic Priest. The challenge this poses for the dreams set for him by his father becomes the conflict that drives this uniquely enthralling novel from end to end.
The story is told from Nedu’s point of view and takes us through the internal struggles he faces and the role his mother, Betty, his siblings–Nwaka, Nwamaka and the Lopizites play in either its achievement or failure.
When we describe Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled as Chikere Agbo’s story of innocence, it should be understood both in content and form and also as in reality as it is in metaphor. In reality, because it is autobiographical and is told without over-mining the minds of the other characters but is allowed to run on Nedu’s visual railroad. In metaphor, it says more.
The innocence in Chikere’s story stands out clearly in language, plot, tone and style. His adoption of simple use of language–a seeming deliberate avoidance of fancy phrases, use of code-switching and proverbs–tells you clearly where he hangs his hat in the art of African storytelling. His eye for details and ability to welcome history, politics, the environment, gender and the psychology of truth is worth mentioning.
Through an introspective interrogation of the conflicts that Nedu faces in his journey as a naïve altar boy, whose only knowledge of the Priesthood was all he could glean from their local parish to acquiring the sophistry of a global Lopizite work-study experience, the writer takes us on a seamless excursion into how priests are made. Chikere succeeds in helping us understand that priests are humans with the same blood that flows in us. We see this in the footballer on the field, the student who is manhandled by “freedom fighter-Security-thieves” at the Congo airport, the one dancing to Congo music in Kinshasa, the man who helplessly watches is friend mauled to death by freedom fighters at their university gate in the Congo, the one for whom, fortune pulls out of Economy to a First Class cabin while flying to California and he soaks up the sudden change in attention and benefits like every one of us would. Above all, the one who encounters the beautiful lady called Ethereal whose meeting would, for the first time, place hard choices before him–a lonely life of celibacy or that of a life companion. The ability of the fluidity of Chikere’s language to communicate this emotion in a sensible and clear manner says how well he has done in this his first offering. This is clearly seen here:
“What happens to the medical profession I was grooming Nedu for? Even if Nedu is concerned about others, doctors also help people in need! God, why are you doing this to me? Please forgive me if it is due to my uncountable sins. Did I not give my father grandchildren? Why should I be denied mine? Haven’t I been supporting my parents in old age? Why shouldn’t I enjoy the care of mine when I grow old? Lord, why do you want to cut my joy short?” Andrew protested to God.
But the beauty of Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled is not limited to his language. The plot is linear and simple. He could if he wanted, but doesn’t bother making the novel an obvious thriller. He allows the story the freedom of innocence letting its rolling hills and watery valleys and the twists and turns of the plot do the thrilling for the reader. The hook of “Would Nedu be a priest or wouldn’t he?” drives the story to the very last page. This innocent storytelling plot and its honest settings in familiar and unfamiliar parts of the world make the novel a good read.
Although one may sense the author struggling with the consistency of voice, sometimes clawing for identity, yet these are only the orange peels of his innocence stinging the eyes of the critical reader. You can clearly notice from the characters and some scenes in the story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s influence on his narrative style, voice and urban middle-class storytelling. You could see Chimamanda’s Eugene (Omelora) in Andrew even though in Andrew’s case, he doesn’t destroy his family with abuse. Though like Eugene, Andrew is heavy-handed and forceful, yet he loves them enough to adjust his pride for them, like when he has to reconcile with Fr. Thomas primarily to please Betty. I am certain Agbo will agree with me, in a few years’ time, that he would have felt better if this manuscript was given a longer fermentation period whence one could start stitching the parity curtain between his prose and Chimamanda’s. But if that had happened wouldn’t it have stained Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled’s pristine innocence?
I see a lot of promise in this writer. I see a deep well of stories to be explored. I also see a knack for detail, intellectual dexterity and an ability to distill a story divested of ego and self-aggrandisement. As a priest of the Church, he could have used the novel as a PR tool for the priesthood, he could have shown off the best that the Lopzites (which I suspect are the Jesuits) have done for mankind in history, but he let the reader put these connections and make the decisions themselves. That’s not an act of innocence. That is a skillful way of helping us into a world that he’s created for us to forage and enjoy.
Whenever, there’s this deliberate incursion in the story, the teacher in Chikere rears its beautiful head.
Agbo falls into the bracket of what Chinua Achebe describes as the “novelist as a teacher.” Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled is beyond a novel, it is a travelogue, a manual and a classroom of life where you’ll learn about Ofe Onugbu, Benin history, Kinshasa history, Nigerian political challenges, the Agricultural systems in Nigeria and America, the map and geography of the world and tons of translated meanings of Igbo and African proverbs. One must however say that for as rich as these add oxygen to the narrative, they inadvertently expose Agbo’s naivety as a young writer.
He sometimes over tells and over explains. The first rule is: “My readers are not fools.” They are humans. They think, they see, they smell and feel. Your job as a writer is to guide them into the world you’ve created, give them the power to imagine with you, experience your journeys, smell what you smell, feel what you feel and live and love your characters in real-time. When you over-explain, over-interpret and over teach, you reduce rather than elevate your readers’ sensibilities. Agbo has the capacity to pick out these tiny but sharp stones in this well-prepared dish of letters. His future works will likely see improvements in this area.
The above notwithstanding, we must applaud this unpretentious and beautiful book –a gripping tale that keeps you turning the pages avidly. Joy Cut Short, But Dreams Fulfilled will serve well for your leisure reading and for studies in secondary schools and universities. It is a life manual for anyone on the interior journey of making major decisions in matters of faith, career, marriage or business. It’s frank, simple and innocent message echoes long after you’ve finished reading it.
Will I read it again? Yes, I will.
-Odili Ujubuoñu, is the author Crows of the Yellow Stream