Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel richly rooted in its conservative northern Nigerian context, yet it is a novel that asks universal questions — is it possible to change someone you love, possible even to challenge the rules of who can be loved and why? On the surface, the novel is the story of Hajiya Binta, a 55-year-old widow, and her affair with a man 30 years her junior — Reza, the so-called “Lord of San Siro.” Reza is a drug dealer who longs for a better life, but is kept back by his flaws, despite Binta’s best efforts to bring him up out of the criminal underworld. But the novel goes beyond a tragic love story and proves not just a biting critique of Nigeria’s political structures but also of its cultural, religious, and gendered norms, challenging what a woman can and can’t do within a conservative society.
The novel unfolds with its focus on Binta, whom we discover has lost her domineering husband to the violent battles between Christians and Muslims in Jos. She longs for a love she has never had in all her years, for unmet desires both sexual as much as relational. With her husband, she “had always wanted it to be different;” she had always wanted “a license to be licentious.” When she makes advances toward her husband and tries to take control of the bedroom, she is punished — “He pinned her down and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” The moment Binta attempts to stretch the boundaries of female agency in her society is the moment she is pushed back into her supposedly proper place.
In many senses, the novel is a cycle of transgressions and consequences for Binta, and as we follow her affair with the young Reza — a thief who appears in Binta’s home and nearly assaults her, and with whom she falls in love — we are left with a desire to see her circumstances change, and yet we feel a sense of dread knowing that the norms she fights against are too entrenched.
Perhaps it is this common bond of transgression that unites the two lovers — Binta and Reza. But it is the desire for bettering their circumstances that works against their relationship and ultimately pulls them apart. Binta wants to take Reza, the gang leader and fixer for a local politician, and turn him into the man she hoped her deceased son, Yaro, would have become had he not been gunned down by police years before: “She was inching closer to his redemption — her redemption, to making him a better person.”
Reza, at the same time, is trying his hardest to distance himself from his mother, who abandoned him in childhood and left his father to become the “whore of Arabia.” When Binta begins to remind Reza of his mother, he meets his lover’s motherly interventions — when she pays his school admission fees, when she quells his temper — with indifference (Freudians really would have a field day with this novel). And it is only when Binta and Reza free themselves from the attachments of who they want each other to be, that they enter the full throes of their sexual relationship. But these moments are only fleeting bits of passion before relational expectations re-enter their lives, exerting force once more over their attempted subversions.
If the characterization of Binta and Reza at times stalls — when Binta becomes an embittered observer of the scenes around her and Reza a temperamental, ineffectual leader obsessed with his own jaded outlook on life — it is the characterization of many of the side characters that carries the novel through some of its slowest parts. Among these characters is Fa’iza, Binta’s niece who lives with her aunt after losing her entire family to the Jos religious riots. Fa’iza’s struggle to overcome this trauma, years later, is a major subplot in the novel, including a riveting moment when Fa’iza confesses that she can no longer remember the face of her deceased brother. Ironically, Fa’iza is more prepared than her aunt to face the further trauma that occurs toward the end of the novel, and her “disquieting” calm helps Binta realize there is “nothing quite like fighting against loss and, despite one’s best efforts, losing all the same.”
Other strong side characters include Mallam Haruna, a suitor who perpetually invades Binta’s home life to sit near her, listening to his radio and providing a running commentary on the presidential campaign of Muhammadu Buhari as it plays out. The author wisely uses this character to weave in some of the strongest political criticism in the novel, a place where fact and fiction merge. At the same time, Haruna becomes a character the reader learns to hate because of his social maneuvering and rumormongering that ironically prove crucial to the plot of the novel. It is Mallam Haruna after all who first notices Binta and Reza’s trysts, and it is the same man who weasels his way into the presences of certain people of power who prove the catalysts for the novel’s climactic trauma.
And it is also with Haruna that Binta exerts her strongest resistance to the gendered norms of her society. When Binta is repeatedly subjected to criticisms by neighbor women responding to rumors spread by the jealous Haruna, Binta shuts down her suitor’s advances with a bold declaration: “Just allow me to whore myself to whomever I please.”
Sure, Ibrahim’s novel has all the tropes of a romance novel — forbidden love, suppressed desire, sexual exploration (Danielle Steel even gets a mention in the novel) — but what makes this novel so special is its rootedness and resistance to a place the author clearly loves and knows and yet feels frustrated by. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a novel that questions the conditions of African women within an Islamic context just as Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter does while maintaining the same riveting plot points that could be found in a novel by Helon Habila, Ibrahim’s compatriot. We will be reading Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and his future work not only for what he teaches us about place, but for the ways in which the norms of that place are challenged, and the ways we create expectations for one other — expectations that may prove helpful or tragic, or paradoxically the same.
Out this week: Between Them by Richard Ford; No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal; The Leavers by Lisa Ko; The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris; My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul; One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul; Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim; Homing Instincts by Sarah Menkedick; and a new edition of Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more May titles, check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford: *SIREN* This is the first work of nonfiction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the extraordinary Bascombe novels. The book, a memoir, explores the lives of Ford’s Arkansas-born mother and father as people and parents, and illustrates a kind of mid-century American life along the way. Ford recently appeared in The Guardian with this recollected gem, which we may assume is exemplary: “Where I was concerned, my mother at best only tolerated (reluctantly) my high school friends, and seemed to prefer I not have any. It was just simpler for her. She consistently disparaged them as if they were criminals (indeed, some were), and would often drive them out of the house because of something they’d said (or she thought they’d said) – usually without ever telling me why.” (Lydia)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)
The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)
A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi: This is a follow-up to The Age of Orphans and The Walking, which respectively tell the story of a conscripted Iranian Kurd during the 1920s, and his son, a young man who comes to California following the Revolution. A Good Country follows the latter’s son, a teen surfer in Laguna Beach who becomes radicalized through a complex process of alienation from his community, spurred by global and local events, and eventually travels to Syria with his girlfriend. (Lydia)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: First published in Kenya to wide acclaim; now published stateside by Oakland-based newcomer Transit Books with an introduction by New Inquiry editor Aaron Bady. Kintu is a retelling of Ugandan history over centuries through a single family. A starred Publishers Weekly review calls it “a masterpiece of cultural memory.” Book Riot put it thus: “passionate, original, and sharply observed, the novel decenters colonialism and makes Ugandan experience primary.” (Lydia)
My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: The editor of The New York Times Book Review has kept a “book of books,” or “Bob,” as she calls it, for twenty-eight years. This catalogue of things read has, naturally, taken on a life of its own, coming to serve as a reminder of where its author was in the world and in her career or personal life, and what a particular book had to say to her at that particular moment. Kirkus calls it “a thoughtfully engaging memoir of a life in books.” (Lydia)
Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and tragic — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)
Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: Newly published in the United States by Cassava Republic Press, this debut novel won Nigeria’s largest award — the $100,000 NLNG prize awarded every four years. The novel received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, with the reviewer describing the book as an “excellent first novel [that] tells of the unlikely romance between a Muslim widow and a dope-dealing street tough amidst the troubles that each faces.”(Lydia)
Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick: An essay collection on motherhood, motherlands, and home from the editor of Vela, a magazine that publishes travel writing by women. Menkedick’s journalism has appeared in many outlets (read her latest on “The Making of a Mexican-American Dream” in Pacific Standard); these essays are written in a meditative, diaristic register, as she trades a peripatetic existence to return to her family farm in Ohio and prepare for the birth of her first child. (Lydia)