Short stories are truly one of life’s understated gifts; and a well spun tale in the hands of a skilled writer has within it, enough power to amaze and transform the vilest of us. But stories -good stories- are also like desperate suitors; they turn you in, out, and around with their advances. Compiling a perfect anthology is therefore a difficult undertaking, akin to the task of designing a hostel where all a woman’s suitors can comfortably co-habit, and allow her to transit, unhurt. It is a difficult one, that task. But in two hundred and forty-eight pages, the NS Anthology made it look all so easy.
The anthology opens with the story of a rather likeable coffin seller. Durosinmi may not fit into most mental molds for the average coffin seller; he appears untouched by his trade. Likewise, the coldness and detachment expected from one who daily traffics in life and its loss is almost absent from the narrative surrounding the protagonist in Yejide Kilanko’s ‘‘a glimpse in the mirror’’. Durosinmi comes alive under Kilanko’s pen, but you can feel him flicker, you can feel him recede towards the edge of believability; he does not feel real enough. His reluctance to take up the family business and his desire for a better life seem understandable though, and his hunger for a chance to craft his own narrative commands our sympathy. We also understand his father’s desperation to force his hands onto the plough. And as the story develops, you wonder if Kilanko has any surprise in store. Her characters are good without being extraordinary. They are believable, and almost imperceptibly, Kilanko also slips some life lessons into her story; lessons which may only begin to approach the point of comprehension towards the end, when Kilanko leaves you bleeding, and hoping, and desperate. By then however, the deed would have been done anyway, and Kilanko would have left a seed in your mind. That ability to penetrate without inflicting pain and to teach without being pedantic is admirable, and Kilanko’s story stays with the reader.
‘‘If tears could speak’’, they would struggle to match Salatu Sule’s eloquently executed coup de grâce. He delivers a sad story in a language that makes you happy. That must be illegal -the execution maybe. In a little over six pages, he explores a widow’s plight, and journey of loss; and though the story is a long soliloquy and lacks good conversations, it makes up for that lack with a simple but believable plot and a good dose of drama. The story is familiarly poignant too, and the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death are so tragic, yet so, so Nigerian. You might be tempted (like i was) to re-read her, tempted to play God, and see if you can rearrange her narrative, and hopefully situate her and her husband far from the stray bullets that fly by day, but that venture will lead no where. The hope which springs forth from his conclusion is comforting enough, it seems.
In ‘‘Can I please Kill you’’ Seun Odukoya delves into the contentious subject of voluntary abortions. Odukoya is pro-life, but he does not push his opinion down your throat. With skillfully crafted prose, he touches on the conflicting emotions surrounding the subject, and rounds off on a cheering note.
The Okon in Uko Bendi Uko’s ‘‘One Sunday morning in Atlanta’’ is my favorite character in the NS Anthology though. And reading Uko, you might be tempted to think that his story lacks a definite plot, but his characters are real. The America based Okon who is being visited by his Jesus-touting mother and mischievous sister will make you smile. And in the end, Okon’s goodness and courage will win you over. We are all works in progress after all.
Babatunde Olaifa’s ‘‘Showdown at Rowe Park ’’ is a short hilarious read. In it, Obashola and Ibukun, two primary school boys go toe to toe in a show of superiority. The reader should beware of Olaifa’s prose I should add. He will floor you, and he might even make you eat grass.
‘‘Blame it on a yellow dress’’ is a story of loss; the loss of innocence. The frail looking Uche Okonkwo writes in a language that belies her phizog. She indicts us too in her tale of incest, and she calls us to more vigilance as she writes in a child’s voice about a Daddy who molests his own daughter. You know that the yellow dress is not to blame, but Okonkwo’s character does not. That too, is tragic.
There is a healing humor in Bankole Banjo’s ‘‘the writer’s cinema’’. It is the story of a campus writer who writes himself into a cul-de-sac. Banjo’s story hints at the memory of the menace of campus cultism, and the danger in being a journalist too. You will be relieved at the end though. The writer’s cinema nearly delivered a tragic comedy, but for the intervention of reality.
In ‘‘seeing off kisses’’ Ugorji briefly explores the subject of the fleeting romance of the NYSC year. His delivery is good, and you can feel the tenuous nature of the bond that binds the love birds in your hands.
I love Obudo’s‘‘visiting Admiral John Bull’’. She explores the underbelly of the Niger-Delta Oil Struggle in her well crafted story. She also exposes the politics, lies and contradictions of it all. Admiral John Bull is a freedom fighter; he is also a philosopher; thief and saviour, arms dealer and compassionate benefactor. You will love and hate him, but you will develop only respect for Obudo’s art.
Vongtau and Otolorin both command admiration, but in different ways: one, in a short but highly entertaining story about a lovable character named Zang who became ‘‘Jesus ’’ with a neatly worked miracle of dys-appearing loaves. Vongtau then jolts you to sobriety with the observation that, often, the men who will aspire to lead the best of us are garbed in reputations like Zang’s.
Myne Whitman and Remi Oyeyemi remind you of their quality, with two mature deliveries: In ‘‘a kind of Bravery,’’ Whitman articulately explores the subject of peer bullying. Her Zube could be any of us. And his painful journey to self discovery and worth is ours too.
Oyeyemi will make your heart warm with‘‘Two straws in a bottle’’. She chronicles an affair from the early days in university and beyond. Her story is idyllic, almost too ideal. But her characters stand up to scrutiny and her prose, tight. I applaud.
My best stories have to be Rayo Abe’s ”Mother of Darkness”, ”Co-operate” by Tola Odejayi and Raymond Elewonke’s ”The devils’s Barter”. Rayo Abe delivers. Her story, ‘‘the mother of darkness’’, is a story about three secondary school girls who try to summon the strongest witch in the world with a short incantation. You will laugh at their failed attempts, and the recurring pattern of interruptions. There is something beautiful and even enviable in that ability to capture and sequester all the emotions of a life-phase into one story. Abe takes you back to secondary school. Warning: the ”mother of darkness” will scare you a bit, but not when you are reading it. The fear comes after you leave the story.
In ”Co-operate Tola Odejayi recounts the story of an armed robbery attempt that goes wrong for the robbers. Watch out for the surprising ending.
The Devil’s barter is my pick of the best.The devil indeed visits Kevin, a young corper, and offers him a hard-to-refuse-deal. And as they negotiate to and fro in Kevin’s small kitchen, you will appreciate Elewonke’s power of description. Maximize that opportunity, because you won’t have time when you are running with Kevin, far from the negotiating table of the devil.
In the NS anthology there are also stories of gun wielding robbers, and of a teacher who would pay a debt to redeem her favorite pupil. There are stories of love lost, love betrayed, love gained; of second chances and the ”Old man in our neighborhood” who is missed only when he is gone. The characters in the anthology reflect us. Their weaknesses and strengths are ours.
Finally, Ashaolu, Osinowo, Adekoya, Onyema, Ilevbare, Chukwubuike, Turtoe and Osi also deserve commendation. Their talent undoubtedly calls for more -legitimately too. The reader of the NS Anthology will realize this after reading their short stories.
The NS Anthology is not perfect; there is no perfect anthology anywhere, no perfect collage in the world. But it is good. Sitting here and typing this review, I know how it feels to read through and summarize a very good book: content, excited and honored. Even then, there are other intangible, difficult-to-thread-into- words rewards awaiting the fortunate reader who gets a copy of the book to read; thoughts i feel i ought to convey. I wish I could- like Oyeyemi wrote- ‘‘now find the words to seal the deal!’’