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Irenosen Okojie: Butterfly Fish

Irenosen Okojie’s debut novel is a most accomplished novel set in present-day London and 19th century Benin. (Note that 19th century Benin has nothing to do with the modern state of Benin but was located in in what is now Edo State, Nigeria.) We follow two young women, who are connected by a bronze bust, one in London, the other in Benin. Joy Omoregbe Lowon, like her creator, is a Nigerian-born woman living and working in London. Early in the book her mother dies unexpectedly. She finds the body in the mother’s house when her mother does not answer her phone. She is naturally devastated and attempts suicide. Fortunately, her neighbour, Mrs Harris, finds her in time. Mrs Harris is one of the many colourful characters in this book, an ageing hippy who has a statute of the Buddha in her garden, which she calls Buddy, and which keeps disappearing and reappearing.

Meanwhile, in Benin, the king (Oba Odion) is looking for an eighth wife. Fathers are offering bribes and young women are preparing fine dishes for the king and their mothers are making them fine clothes. Adesua is the only child of Anahero and Uwamusi. Anahero is mocked by his peers for having only one wife and no sons but he is happy with his daughter and Uwamusi. Adesua is prepared for the meeting with the king and to everyone’s surprise but ours, she is selected. Odion could no more explain his choice of a new bride as he could the desire that drove him to be king. Seeing her for the first time reminded him of a stalk that refused to be bent by the wind and for reasons unknown to him he equated such strength of character to mean loyalty. There is a considerable amount of politicking going on with the previous wives (who do not take kindly to Adesua) as well as the courtiers, much of it fomented by his favourite and third wife, Omotole. While we follow this politicking, Adeusa remains aloof, preferring to spend her time wandering around the royal grounds. Odion pays her little attention, though he does visit her occasionally. On one occasion he brings her a bronze head as gift. Again, it is unclear to him and to the other wives why she was selected for this gift. The head is a traditional bronze head made of a defeated enemy, this one being of Ogiso, formerly Odion’s best friend who had turned against him.

Meanwhile, back in London, Joy has seen someone shoplifting flowers and follows her. She was on her way to see Mervyn, her mother’s solicitor, an old family friend of Jamaican origin. She follows the shoplifter but loses her just near to Mervyn’s office, where she learns that her mother has left her some money from the sale of a property that Joy never knew existed, her grandfather’s diary and a bronze bust, which we assume is the bronze bust Adesua had. She will see the shoplifter again. She will also find strange things happening in her flat.

At this point we meet Queenie, newly arrived from Nigeria who gives us her impressions of London, which she finds very strange after Nigeria. We follow her in her search for lodging and a job but also her lively accounts of London and comparing it with Nigeria. We learn soon enough that she is, in fact, Joy’s mother and we will follow her life in London, though generally through Joy’ recollections. We learn more about her, as we get excerpts from her father’s, Peter Lowon, life as an army officer just before and after Nigerian independence.

Back in 19th century Benin a stranger has arrived. We already know that Odion is in debt to some white people and this white man – Sully Morier – has been found, beaten up, outside the gates. Odion takes to him and makes him head of his security, to the annoyance of his council. Sully also becomes friendly with Adeusa. While, to a certain degree, this novel is about the arrival of the white colonials (the Portuguese are the ones in this case), this is not the key theme of this novel.

It is Joy who sums up one of the key themes of this novel – My theory was, fucked up people can’t help being drawn to other fucked up people. The other key theme is that, some way or another, there is a chance that your past will come back to haunt you, whether because of some deed you committed or simply because of an action by one of your ancestors. All the main characters seem to associate with people who I would described as less than honest rather than fucked up, most of them have something of a past which will come back and most of them pay a price for their misdemeanours and/or past. Indeed, as we move to the reckoning, the novel takes on a much darker tone.

This is a very complex novel and, for a first novel, a very accomplished debut. Okojie’s story of people with troubled lives, people haunted by their past and the problems of immigrants in a foreign country are not uncommon themes in literature. However, her approach is decidedly original. She has clearly read her Fagunwa and Tutuola, as Nigerian folk legends, history and strange beings appear throughout the book. Her language is wonderfully colourful without being in any way difficult for the ordinary reader. Joy has a a camera (she calls it Marpessa) and it is clear that Joy and her creator both have a photographic eye for detail and colour. In short, this novel shows that we can expect to hear a lot more from Irenosen Okojie in the future.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Jacaranda Books