Book review: Prudence Onaah’s portrait of death’s multicoloured fabric on Plateau in ‘Calling Death’
Calling Death is the fictional account of Jos crisis. The crisis has droned on for years. Its relentlessness is its tragedy and it is no longer news that there is crisis in Jos. Therefore, it fails to generate sufficient outrage.
Prudence Onaah’s novel, Calling Death, comes in to remedy this. The novel is a determined attempt to humanize lives realized at the edge of a knife, death and near-deaths. It strips death of its anonymity and insists on calling it by its first name.
No more are we confronted with mere numbers. We are given a living story of the dying and the dead. We see how the students of UNIJOS graduate with double certificates, school certificates and certificates of survival.
Even as the outside world around them crumbles, and the knives of assailants move in wide arcs, slashing into their safety and branding them for life with trauma, the students forge ahead, in testimony to the resilience of life and youth.
The narration style is masterly. The story begins on a feisty note. Leo and Eva carry on their endless but futile flirtation. Susan continues frying her fish, even as an explosion racks Jos.
These are the ways in which the author makes the story alive. The Jos deaths are made more real by the ordinariness of the days shattered by explosions and violence. The unpredictability of violence heightens the tragedy.
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Towards the end of the book, the liveliness of the characters nosedives, heightening the emotional response to the story. Itunu escapes death many times and even though she seems to be a cat with nine lives, her psyche is brutalized into stupor.
Why don’t they leave? This is one of the numerous questions asked of survivors of trauma, putting the weight of their suffering on them and relieving onlookers of the burden of compassion.
There is the student who has tangoed with death so much that another year seems doable. There are those who stay on because that is all they know and own. The characters exhibit defiance that sometimes seems like death wish, but is merely the insistence of life on triumphing over death. Amidst the bombings and attacks, the characters visit hairdressing salons.
Onaah draws a moving montage. The strength of the novel lies in its nonlinearity and its occasional fragmentation that serves to emphasize the trauma and lack of closure occasioned by unpredictability, with many hoping the unrecognizable corpses are not their loved ones.
Onaah successfully conveys the uncertainty of life in Jos. At the beginning of the novel, we know that there has been death and violence.
The unnamed weary traveller becomes a figure of all the nameless people that have died or lost loved ones to the Jos crisis. Onaah does not let us lose sight of the beauty of Jos, dotted with hills, nestled in tranquility.
This is part of the tragedy of Jos that Onaah deftly weaves, while telling the story of young love, resilience, friendship, life and death.
My overall thoughts:
As far as the Jos crisis is concerned, Calling Death resolves our estrangement from our humanity and forces us to confront the brevity of our superficial outrage that easily peters out upon the next distraction.
Onaah resolutely stays above tribal stereotypes; thus, the story remains firmly human, as it depicts help coming from unexpected quarters. The book leaves one pining for more, hopeful that someday Onaah would bless her readers with a full-length work that prods even deeper into the hidden lives of Josites and Jos who have been battered so insistently by tragedy.
Until she does, Calling Death is both delightful and painful to read, and the coexistence of both delight and pain is what makes the book so human and so effective in bringing the story of Jos alive.