Review: Passing Clouds - Helena Nwaokolo
Recommended particularly for anyone who enjoys the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
If you have read the first issue of 'Makarelle' you will have read some of Helena's work already. This is her debut novel and needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Blurb: The pattern of Jenny's young life is etched by myths and realities: the breaking of cultural convention; free-love; women's liberation; the Biafran War and mental illness. Years later the turmoils of her life at home and in Africa finally begin to make sense.
In the Author's Notes, Helena acknowledges the influence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her thinking when writing this novel and if you have read Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun it is easy to see this influence at work. When we read Adichie's novel (set during the Nigerian civi war) for book group, one of the things that was most commented on was the lyrical style of writing. This was most in evidence in the descriptions of the landscape and it is here where Adichie's influence is most obvious in Helena's book. There was one particular passage that stood out for me and when I read it, it was as though I was there in that landscape.
'In the early afternoon we left the road that had taken us north east from Ibadan through Benin City. The road to the east wound across a changing landscape. Through the window, a scene of fresh, bright green passed - not the luxuriant rainforest we later travelled through but the expanses of bush and jungle stretched further and further along the road's edge until the route wound itself between denser growth. We touched many small villages and tiny settlements along the way. At the approach to each, women with small babies strapped to their back and with young children playing in the dust at their feet tended rickety tables and wide, filled baskets. The vendors sat under shady trees fanning themselves whilst regularly rearranging the fruit or other goods they offered for sale.
Two more hours in the car and the sun began to lose its height and intensity. It slid down towards the horizon, glinting its reflection back across the land. Silver streaks pierced the greenery to the left as glimpses of the distant river revived my interest. Soon the road veered closer to the water so the glimpses became a persistent riverscape of wide, wild water carrying little wooden boats between the waterside villages.
In the distance, shining, a giant concrete arm spanned the Niger and within minutes we swept across it.'
This is a slow and gentle read - there are no explosions, no kidnappings, no huge showdowns between friends or family. It reads like a memoir and at its heart is a woman reflecting on her life and the events within it. Don't be fooled by the pace of the narrative or the beautiful descriptions though. Passing Clouds has bite. Jenny has so many obstacles to overcome in her pursuit of the life she wants - racial prejudice, cultural differences, mental health problems to mention just a few. There is also no shying away from the long-term effects of civil war, both on those who fought in it and on those who were kept away.
Adichie talks about 'the danger of the single story'. She says, 'Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.' However, perhaps in beginning to tell those individual stories, a dialogue can be opened up and others will begin to tell their stories. In this way, a more rounded view emerges of Nigeria, its people and their history. When I read Half of a Yellow Sun in January, I didn't even know Nigeria had had a civil war. Now, through Adichie's various novels and Passing Clouds, I feel I am learning something beyond the bare facts of an internet search - I am beginning to develop a tentative understanding of the different cultures that exist within Nigeria.
Passing Clouds is £7 (excluding P&P) and is only available directly from Helena, so if anyone is interested in purchasing a copy, contact me (either via the website or in person, if you know me in real life!) and I will pass her details on to you.