Of crazy men and women: A review of Obinna Udenwe’s ‘The Widow Who Died With Flowers In Her Mouth’ — Olukorede S Yishau
Nearly all the men and women in Obinna Udenwe’s latest book, The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth, are mad.
Or what better way to describe a woman who blocks a drainage channel with her victims’ remains; a man who decides public suicide is the best way to draw attention to the woes of this world and a tailor whose power of seduction is otherworldly? And do we query the sanity of an Abakaliki man who assumes his wife left their marriage because of novelist Zadie Smith?
Quite a number of the 11 stories in this collection are scary, bloody and surreal. The lines drip with sorrow and tears.
The stories in Udenwe’s collection are explorations of the nuances and hazards of living on lanes that aren’t just fast but dangerous. Also, Udenwe examines the erotic, the bizarre and the universal, and in this examination, he does not leave the reader behind in experiencing the pains and pleasures of his characters.
This literary work isn’t your usual collection of short stories. In fact, it is a collection of long-form stories — many of the stories are shorter than a novella but longer than average short stories. It shares this uniqueness, in some sense, with Jennifer Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, whose American edition is titled Let’s Tell This Story Properly.
The opening story is appropriately titled ‘John 101 or The New Ridiculous Way To Commit Suicide and Be Famous’. In it, a man, John, is frustrated by the unstable economic situation in Nigeria. He has written letters to world leaders on how to change the world and when things fail to change, he decides to kill himself but in killing himself, he feels he needs to draw attention to his motive. So, he pastes obituary notices around and announces the spot where his end will come.
One story that is bound to break hearts is titled ‘It Has To Do With Emilia’. This very picturesque story, which unsurprisingly has been adapted for the screen, is about Emilia, a Jehovah Witness, who strikes an unusual relationship with a man. She comes to his apartment regularly, sleeps on his bed but they do nothing, just talk and eat and drink. Then one day a man shows up in the apartment and introduces himself as Emilia’s husband. What happens next? You have to get yourself a copy.
Two of the stories are related, one is like the sequel of the other: ‘Melancholy’, the first of the related stories, introduces us to Patina Lyonga, a woman just out of prison and discovering her community has changed a lot. On getting home, she meets the loyal security man who has ensured the house hasn’t fully fallen apart.
The story which is set in a Camerounian town called Mamfe ends with a tragic incident which leaves us wondering, but Patina isn’t done with us. We meet her again in ‘The ‘Housekeeper’, where she is at first a housekeeper to a Madam before becoming the Madam of the house, herself. Her need of a plumber to fix a blocked chamber leads us into noirish territory. This story set against Donald Trump’s quest for America’s presidency is a window into sensuality and surrealism.
Udenwe again messes with our hearts in ‘Obama Tailorin Shop’. What happens in and around this shop goes beyond designing and sewing clothes. Ama returns to her community after a sojourn in Port Harcourt and lies that she has come back from America where she was part of Barack Obama’s campaign team. But it is not her tall tales that gall the women of the town. It is her amazing power to attract their men who flock to her shop and in the long run, get more than they bargained for.
Who is the eponymous widow in the title of the book? Tsetsiliya is a white woman who fell in love with an African and moved to his community with him in the titular story which appears to be the longest in the collection. How does the widow end up with flowers in her mouth? Where are the flowers from? That is the mystery at the heart of this tale. In this story, we see the fragility of love when challenged by family, culture and others.
In ‘The Tamarind’, Udenwe takes us to Jos and Abuja where he introduces us to Salamatu and Jang. It is a tale of grief and the strange turn grief, sometimes, takes. It is also a love story, not just love between two lovers, but the love between a man and his passion or ambition. Through this story, the author reminds us of the menace that many herdsmen are in Nigeria and the sad turn of events in the once-peaceful Jos.
The stories in this collection, a worthy literary achievement, aren’t explained for the audience outside the milleu that gave rise to them. The author is apparently telling them to use Google or research phrases and words in Nigerian languages which he refuses to translate.
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. His sophomore novel, After The End, is forthcoming on July 17, 2024 from Masobe Books.