We are a multitude of things: A review of Rosana Amaka’s “Rose and the Burma Sky” — Olukorede S. Yishau
The prologue of Rosanna Amaka’s charming and deeply affecting historical novel, Rose and the Burma Sky, promises a great time ahead but the pages that follow seem to have the potential to frustrate an impatient reader. But once these few pages are endured, the door is open for a thought-provoking read, which shows that human beings are a multitude of things: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The novel, whose prologue is smeared with blood, violence, and reminisce of a love in abeyance, follows Obi and his friends as they grow up in Southeastern Nigeria and Lagos shortly before and during World War II. It also follows some of them to Burma, Freetown and London.
Obi, the narrator, is in love with one of the friends, Rose who, however, wants more from life, a reason that encourages him to quit farming for the colonial army. The feminist in Rose rebels against the challenges limiting women. Despite her strong nature, Obi pines for her.
Obi, who is from a financially-challenged home, gets the chance to be with her when she falls pregnant and attempts to get a village quack to terminate it. He offers her a lifeline: An arranged marriage to save her from ridicule.
Her rich father laughs off the marriage proposal arguing that she deserves better, but he gives up after finding out she is expectant.
Obi’s sacrifice is despite Rose’s refusal to tell him who her baby’s father is. The ambitious Rose leaves for Lagos in search of “more” after delivering a baby named after her. Obi’s grandmother takes over the care for the baby.
An unplanned visit to Lagos changes the chemistry between them and it looks like the marriage will now be real. But tragedy strikes and Obi begins to search for answers to questions, including the paternity of Rose’s albino-looking baby. He is yet to get his answers when he is shipped to Burma to fight in World War II. The answers he seeks colour his time at the war front and decades later.
The second half of this novel is its strength. The tension here is intense as we follow Obi in his quest for answers to the tragedy of his life.
The author makes use of the epistolary form a lot and she shows her mastery of it. The letters between Obi and Rose are major dramatic points of this book and help keep the plot going.
The book offers stimulating perspectives on colonial literature. We also see commentaries on stereotypes and racism and colonialism. The evil of racism, especially, is exposed. Soldiers of African descent had a separate hospital ward, among other unfair treatment and when the war’s history is told, they are mere footnotes. They hardly featured in major pictures of the war era. The discrimination even extended to the ship that was meant to take soldiers back home after the war. The white boarded first and the Africans waited and waited and waited for months to reunite with their families. And how the promises made to them while being enlisted were never fulfilled.
Rosanna Amaka gives the heavy theme of war a soft side by lacing it with love and romance, jealousy and hatred. The love story between Obi, the soldier and Rose, the nurse, offers a narrative that humanises the chronicle of World War II’s ills.
We also see how the colonial masters forced our forebears to construct roads, mine coal under excruciating conditions and labour to fund a war that they had nothing to do with. We also see diversion of our food and resources to England in support of the battle for a new world order. But, all these do not obtrude but work as a backdrop to a personal story of love unrequited, later found, and subsequently lost.
In this book, we hear echoes of the Aba Women’s riot, the Enugu coal mines’ workers’ protests for good life, the shabby ways they were treated and other atrocities of the colonial administration against our nation and our people.
With a story that spans over 60 years, Amaka paints in multi-coloured canvas the history of Nigeria’s involvement in World War II, the post-war era, the quest for Independence and the disillusionment thereafter.
The author’s exploration moves across nations: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Burma, India and the UK, a development which gives room for a variety of perspectives to this personal yet global story. And all through, she makes us not just smell things but see them in their beautiful and ugly states. War, for instance, is laid bare. We see, as JP Clark’s poem pointed out, that the casualties are not only those who are dead. The families of the dead are casualties, too. And surviving soldiers are casualties on another level, who battle traumas, see flashes of violence regularly and at times lose their minds. And like Nonso’s mother discovers, mourning isn’t just because of the dead, it is also because of the living who no longer have a grasp of their minds.
The aspect of the book that deals with mental health brings to mind David Diop’s Booker Prize-winning novel, At Night All Blood Is Black in which a World War II African soldier who lost his mind becomes a threat even to his colleagues and they ostracise him.
The author X-rays grief and the questions it raises and the answers it never gets.
She brilliantly shows that the effects of wars are varied from individual to individual and despite their variety, there is nothing pleasant about these effects. Peace, she silently preaches, is what we should strive for.
The author has written an impressive novel which will find a great spot on the shelf of World War II and colonial era-themed books. And its place among books on grief is assured. Ultimately, it is a very good read.
–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.