Unbridled is the story of Erika (Ngozi Akachi) as she struggles to firmly root herself in the present and at the same time make peace with and distance herself from her past. For some inexplicable reason, I start reading from the middle of the book. I soon find out that it makes no difference where one starts because the story is told in a cyclical fashion. And like the journey Erika herself is on, the narrative rolls forwards and backwards with Erika’s stream of consciousness which becomes that of the reader while they are on this journey with her. Erika is on a train to Heathrow Airport via Kings Cross St Pancras when the reader first ‘encounters’ her. She has been in the UK for four years and is on her way to Nigeria, her first journey back. The reader is on this journey with Erica. Where she goes in her thoughts and observations, the reader goes too.
At the beginning the narrative is off to a slow start – This would be my only criticism. The reader is kept entertained with Erika’s observations about other passengers on the train. Soon the reader finds themselves asking: “why is she there, what is this really about?” As the reader exercises more patience, the unravelling of Erika’s story pays dividends. They learn about Erika’s friends who also survive abuse in various forms, the men in Erika’s life and Erika’s journey back to the cruel truth: where it all began. Erika is confronted with the bitter truth about her mum’s knowledge. But Erika can take it because she has finally found her voice and she knows how far she has come. Dibia – in the voice of Erika – is critical of the way incest is handled in the African setting – in this case – the Igbo community. Erika’s experience highlights the damaging habit of families who send their daughters to extended family to live in order to protect the family name rather than expose the shame of incest.
The men who come into Erika’s life (with the exception of Providence – the symbolism of which is not lost on the astute reader ) – merely perpetuate what she has known up to that point. James is no more than a dream that turns out to be a disappointment and then a nightmare. There are some statements on racial prejudice and the interplay of race, gender and power. There is the sense that running away as Erika did to the UK is never the answer to unresolved issues. There is also the question of identity and detachment. After her woes, there is the promise of a future with Providence but Erika is not in a hurry. She wants to be accepted and respected for who she is. This marks the end of Erika’s suppression and the start of self empowerment. It is heart warming that soon after her ‘emancipation’ from James, Erika finds her voice while travelling to Heathrow Airport via Kings Cross St Pancras. Voice here symbolising courage, dignity and self esteem.
Unbridled is well written and the storytelling so engaging in its stream of consciousness effect and style. I am particularly impressed with Dibia’s insight into Erika’s psyche as a female character. Dibia displays admirable empathy in his treatment of psychological issues related to the trauma of incest; the fragility as well as the strengths of Erika as a character. He probes her soul with telepathic prose. It is this stream of consciousness effect and the excellent skill shown by Dibia – in creating the point of view of his leading female character on a symbolic journey coming to terms with the trauma of incest – that marks out Unbridled as a unique piece of work in contemporary African fiction. I cannot wait to read Blackbird, Dibia’s latest novel and Walking With Shadows, his first book.
©Adura Ojo – June 2011