The Secrets that keep us: a review of Olukorede Yishau’s “Vaults of Secrets” – Sima Essien
Olukorede Yishau’s debut work of fiction—In The Name of Our Father, was a massive revelation.
An entertainingly confident saga, it dealt with themes of entrenched hypocrisy, authoritative oppression and fearless journalism. The novel garnered largely positive criticism, and titillated audiences enough to stoke high expectations for new writing from Yishau.
Now, following his debut novel’s achievements, Yishau returns with a slim collection of powerful and precise short stories. Vaults of Secrets is comprised of 10 stand-alone stories which collectively focus on the lives of Nigerians, as well as the secrets that define them. All of the stories brim with the force of Yishau’s signature prose: a balance of measured narration, crisp detailing, stellar wisdom and sensitive unfolding. It is also impressive how Yishau’s rhythm and language carries these stories, while presenting nuanced, fresh perspectives of ordinary lives and known themes: family, abuse and violence, relationships, society and life before death.
And yet, it is the primary characters within these stories that testify to Yishau’s deft weaving. Drawn mostly from the middle or lower classes, they breathe and speak and exist, not just as fictional devices, but people we are bound to relate with and understand. They are people we know, people like us. They are not perfect, these characters; as true people should be. All of them are Nigerians, seeking truth, chasing freedom, crying out for love or giving it. We find some of them to be metaphorical Cristiano Ronaldos, as they are fond of “dribbling the truth” according to the narrator of “Till We Meet to Part No More”. In Yishau’s grip, these people make questionable decisions to execute acts ranging from obfuscations of truth to mortifying atrocities—the type to make your heart skip a beat or two.
The protagonist of “Better Than The Devil” is an interesting example of Yishau’s ability to present humanity’s shocking aspects without being overtly sensational or stiff. In the aforementioned story, we are confronted with the burden of dark choices and the consequences of having inadequate options, or absolutely none at all. True to his signature wisdom, Yishau doles out sparkling insights on human nature through impeccable character descriptions. In “This Special Gift” he pronounces one immoral character as “…the perfect example of what success should not be.” Such solid wisdom is quite uncommon in contemporary writing, and can only be acquired by one who truly listens, truly observes ordinary lives.
Vaults of Secrets also reveals Yishau’s notable capacity for tackling difficult subjects within a range of different settings. From the miserable confines of a Nigerian prison to Western suburbia, we are made to come to terms with the universality of the human condition: that we all suffer and hurt, regardless of the places we inhabit, or the social statuses we bear. Societal negativities like rape, spousal abuse, sponsored crime, infidelity and failed justice systems remain deeply affecting across geographical boundaries.
Having crisscrossed the globe, mostly on journalistic duties, Yishau’s keen, bespectacled sense of observation rewards us with accurate tour-guide studies of global cities and their peculiarities, their naked energy and form. This lends another layer of depth, a substantial level of realism to the stories. For an example, consider this splendid sentence from “Open Wound”—“Washington, depending on where you were, could be lovely, dangerous or dirty.” There is also the hard-edged starkness of Lagos, a place famed for its sophisticated amorality, in which Yishau frames the collection’s most affecting tale—“Otapiapia.” A personal favourite, “Otapiapia” succinctly captures the spirit of Lagos and does this so well because everything about it happens primarily within a house, one that harbours consequential secrets. Add this to its shattering ending, its ironic treatment of infidelity and promiscuity, and you have the story that best proves its writer’s storytelling prowess, a story worthy of special praise, so to speak.
Interestingly, the most predominant and recurring word in all 116 pages of the anthology is not “secrets” but rather the word “know” and its varied other forms. By my rough estimations, these words alone appear hundreds of times in the book! This should not be too surprising. After all, the gravitas in Yishau’s collection lies in the search for knowledge and truth, be it for closure, redemption or the satisfaction of mere curiosity. Consider also the nature of Yishau’s foremost profession—journalism, which constantly demands that truthful accuracy and fairness be the tools for upholding a just society. This zeal for knowledge of truth is echoed over and over again by the characters, even more than the instances in which the death of truth becomes a clear objective; the rugged voice of “Better Than The Devil” is also the perpetrator of hideous crimes, acts of whose knowledge he must bear to the literal grave: the tough sense of this particular story takes us back to the concrete world of In the Name of Our Father, which Yishau depicted so masterfully, so convincingly.
Still, the truth can sometimes be a double-edged sword, breaking chains while also creating new wounds and graver problems. In the stories “My Mother’s Father Is My Father” and “Lydia’s World”, the narrator is burdened with a tormenting truth in the former, while the titular protagonist of the latter gradually unravels a disturbing mystery to a grand cost of seismic proportions. The truth, in this case, basically upends her known world, proving that it is more than just a bitter pill to swallow. Sometimes, it can be pure poison.
Yishau’s writing understandably contains sprinklings of social and political commentary; after all, he is a writer who clearly prioritises his role as a mouthpiece for Nigerians and their tragic experiences. His weekly column in The Nation newspaper, Above Whispers, routinely discusses topical issues concerning the country. Through this modest platform, Yishau makes opinionated statements that have established him as a man worth listening to. ‘In the Name of Our Father’ afforded Yishau the scope and opportunity to effectively examine the known evils of dictatorship and false religion, while also telling a compelling narrative propelled by memorable characters and a solid plot.
However, in ‘Vaults of Secrets’, Yishau’s noble insistence to make a statement within all the stories does not quite hit the mark sometimes. Perhaps, this is due to the natural brevity of short stories. It can be quite difficult to clothe a central political or social statement with the adornments of prose and plot, particularly under abridged limits. If Yishau succeeded with the remarkable “Otapiapia”, he did not quite nail it with the beautifully titled “When Truth Dies”. In the latter, the story’s interesting premise of true identity is weakened by unsubtle socio-political criticism and an abruptly unsatisfying ending.
It is not all gloom and grime within the Vaults of Secrets. Amidst the uneven spread of sordid deeds and dark revelations, there are also positive bursts of optimism and deserved happiness. In “Letters From the Basement” a disgraced and imprisoned governor finds soulful redemption in acknowledging the importance of family. Perhaps the only story in this collection that contains a beneficial secret, “This Thing Called Love” ends positively and warmly with the grace of “second chances.”
There are a lot of things to love about Vaults of Secrets: start with the effectiveness of Yishau’s crisp, unadorned prose, simple but striking; the embedded wisdom of each and every story; the merciful and delightful conciseness of the stories—short enough to be savoured in good time, without ever becoming forgettable; and the absolute pleasure of relatable characters. Characters whom Yishau enables us to wear the skin of their stories, to briefly live their lives and bear the weight of their revelations.
Yishau’s storytelling also embraces inventiveness that excites, a sign of bold mastery. In “Open Wound”, the intriguing life of a character is relayed ruthlessly and candidly by an unlikely narrator—Conscience, actually. If that sounds strange, you would no doubt appreciate the clever and impressive technique of narration employed in “Lydia’s World”, a story that is just as excellent as “Otapiapia.” In “This Special Gift” —the story from which the anthologyʼs title was chosen, an interesting character has the quirky ability of turning up at inopportune moments. Say, like the moment he catches his neighbour committing a disgraceful act. Yishau unfolds this particular story with a satirical tone, prompting situations of pure incredulity and sheer laugh-out-loud moments. Ultimately, the general significance of Yishau’s collection may easily be put down to the keeping of secrets or the desire to uncover truths. However, Yishau deftly uses the ten stories within this glowing anthology to show that it is our secrets that actually keep us, and truths easily reveal our true selves better than anything else. There are characters within those pages who are limited by the secrets they keep, for only a life that has nothing to hide can truly be free. This also applies in reality. From keeping secrets to protect ourselves or others, to hiding the truth just for the sheer thrill, the basic power of possessing rare knowledge: the secrets we keep conversely birth versions of us that we selectively reveal to others. Secrets hurt. Not just self-hurt, but the pain people suffer from not knowing the truth. Imagine a country that kills its citizens and buries them in silent shadows, and you will understand why families break, why individuals interrogate agony because of withheld closure. If one can take a singular, beneficial message from this book, it is that unburdening our hearts of secrets will make it easier for our souls to heal. We would be totally free.
All in all, Vaults of Secrets offers an enlightening and entertaining insight into the lives of Nigerians, through powerful themes and deftly sensitive storytelling of a precise and brilliant clarity. For the second time, Olukorede Yishau has successfully asserted himself as a masterful and fascinating voice. Here is a writer who should enjoy the benefits of wider readership, the rewarding boost of due praise.
With ‘Vaults of Secrets’ a solid recommendation for lovers of good literature, Yishau’s next body of work—’Like Someone Skating On Thin Ice’, is already worthy of feverish anticipation. Simply put, it is one secret we all cannot wait to pull out of the vault.