It is St Valentine’s Day and tomorrow a love story will be unleashed on the world. It is called ‘ The Madhouse’.
The love story TJ Benson tells with dexterity goes beyond the stereotypical girl-meets-boy tales. It is about how a brother loves a brother and much more. Of course, a 29-year-old already-balding man also meets a girl, has his first kiss and his first sexual baptism.
Some pages into T J Benson’s debut novel, a brother narrates how his brother always comes into his dream to save him from danger. If you wonder, what kind of a thing is that? Well, welcome to the madhouse, where all things and anything is possible, where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred, where it is not strange that the living cohabits with the dead and the dead with the living, where a pot of tomato stew made by no one can suddenly find its way into the kitchen, where a child begs his mother for permission to pretend God doesn’t exist for one year, and where if care is not taken, you find yourself howling at the author’s antics.
The story is largely about two brothers, Max (the first son) and Andre (his younger brother who he is always invading his dream and saving from death). Their parents search for answers to the troubles of life from two extremes: church and alcohol. The wife known as Sweet Mother hops from one church to the other; once she cannot find what she is looking for, she moves on. The kids are bathed in River Kaduna but the dreams refuse to stop and the advice that she should wait on the Lord is discarded and her search continues for an end to the homicidal dreams. Nothing is too extreme for her once it is decreed by a man of the cloth, but still her woes remain, hale and hearty. She even anoints her nipples and gets her boys to suck for as long as possible on a miracle worker’s instruction. Still the dreams persist.
At a point, Sweet Mother decides that the best thing is for Max to go to a boarding school, a decision that draws him further away from his mother and his father who supports the idea. In school, his mind is always on Andre, who he has spent the bulk of his life protecting from one harm or the other.
On her first visit to his school, she declares after Max queries her for not bringing Andre: “I know he is your brother but you are too attached to him. Even I, and he grew in my stomach, I don’t attach myself to him like that ehn.”
At 29, working with NAFDAC as a pharmacist, he takes a break and travels to Amsterdam in search of his beloved younger brother. There, he runs into a White girl in a lingerie shop. They go their separate ways after some chit-chat but run into each other again at the venue of a concert his brother is supposed to be performing with his band. From then on, the girl takes his attention and his brother takes a break from his heart. He gets his first kiss and also his first shag on this trip. The enigmatic girl’s strange effect on him worries him but he is captured enough to extend his stay and enjoy the world with this babe respected in the art circus for her photography even when her name and identity are shrouded in secrecy.
Benson wraps this dreamlike work around Nigeria’s recent past: We read about Fela dying of complications arising from HIV/ AIDS; we read of Abacha dying from rumoured Indian prostitutes bearing apples; we read of the 2012 New Year gift of fuel subsidy removal; we read of OccupyNigeria protest; and we read of immunisation in the North and the lure of Glucose.
Told in multiple ponts of view in the third person from Max and Andre’s Points of View, ‘The Madhouse’ deals with mental illness, the bond between brothers and how a woman can make you change beyond your imagination.
Though set in Kaduna and Amsterdam, the cities are not characters in this work. The bizarre tales the author tells obviously requires them to be passive. Max and co supply enough vibes to keep the reader turning the pages.
You will find this work experimental, but in a cool, smooth way: At a point, the quotation marks disappear in conversations between Max and his babe; reminding me of Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker winning ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and some parts of Helon Habila’s ‘Travellers’. You have to be attentive to connect with this part.
This book is very Nigerian so do not be surprised to see expressions like ‘they were waiting for Nepa to bring light’.
There is something you must prepare your mind for before dabbling into this book: If you are looking for a social-realist plot, you will not find it here because this work is of a queer family doused in dreams, politics, history, misunderstandings, disappointments. Benson delivers a ‘lickable’ poetic-prose with sprinklings of symbols, history and magic.
One more thing: Once you are sucked in, you are in for a swell time with this harmonic work that reminds me so much of the writings of Maik Nwosu, especially ‘Alpha Song’ and ‘ Invisible Chapters’.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘ In the Name of Our Father’