This Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from Nigerian-born author Irenosen Okojie’s novel Butterfly Fish, which has just been shortlisted for the 2016 Betty Trask Prize.
The Betty Trask Awards are given annually to the debut novelists under the age of 35, to celebrate “young authors writing in a traditional or romantic style”.
Prize judge Michèle Roberts called Butterfly Fish: “A bittersweet story uniting different traditions of narrative to create a whole new geography of the imagination.”
Butterfly Fish spans modern London, 1970s London and 19th century Benin, combining elements of traditional Nigerian storytelling and magical realism with a compelling take on the legacy of inheritance.
Scroll down for an excerpt
About the book
After the sudden death of her mother, London photographer Joy struggles to pull the threads of her life back together, with the support of her kind but mysterious neighbour Mrs Harris. Joy’s fortune begins to change when she receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother: a huge sum of money, her grandfather’s diary and a unique brass warrior’s head from the nineteenth century kingdom of Benin.
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Read an excerpt:
Fish Out Of Water
19th century Benin
At dawn on the day the news of the competition reached the Omoregbe family, Adesua, with a bitter taste in her mouth, had risen to the gentle sound of her mother’s footsteps. From her position on the floor, the unrelenting glare of the sun flooding the small but sturdy compound provided further an illuminating reminder of the tasks to be done for the day.
The news that the king was looking for a new bride had quickly spread all over Esan land and people had been buzzing for weeks about the competition. The special event was to be held at the palace, where all suitable young women were to bring a dish they had prepared, and the king would make his choice of a new bride from the maker of the best dish.
Mothers running around like headless chickens, each eager to outdo the other, constantly visited the market stalls keeping their ears open for any piece of information they could glean to give their daughter an advantage. Fathers resorted to bribery, bombarding the King with gifts. The palace was laden with necklaces, cloths, masks, sweet wine from the palm trees, goat, cow and bush meat. The rumour began that the palace stocked enough to feed all of Esan and the surrounding areas for two seasons, though this came from Ehimare, the land’s most famous gossip, who was deaf in one ear and whose mouth appeared to be in perpetual motion.
Adesua was Mama Uwamusi’s only child who arrived in the world kicking and screaming into broken rays of light. Uwamusi had almost died giving birth, and further attempts at having other children had resulted in five dead babies. This day as they swept their small compound in preparation for their guests she handed
over the broom to her daughter, looking at her as if for the first time.
She must have known she had done well; Adesua was beautiful with a wide mouth and an angular face. She had the height of her father and his stubborn temperament but her heart was good and this pleased Uwamusi more than any physical attribute. Adesua was a young woman now, yet she wondered if the girl realised it, so quick was she to climb a tree or insist on going hunting with Papa Anahero at any opportunity Later, they were expecting the company of Azemoya and Onohe, two of Papa’s friends from a neighbouring village. She did not enjoy the extra work that came with attending to their every whim, for both men could each eat enough for two or three people and never failed to outstay their welcome. Azemoya had six wives and many children, and so was quick to invite himself to other people’s homes to ensure a reasonably large meal every so often. Onohe was a very lazy man; it was a curse that had afflicted male members of his bloodline for generations. Instead of working hard to provide for his family, he was full of excuses. Either there was some bodily ailment (real or imagined) troubling him, or the weather was not agreeable or the Gods had not shown him favour no matter how many sacrifices he made to them. Onohe was at his happiest whenever his stomach was full, yet it was widely known that his wives and children could sometimes be seen begging neighbours for food.
Adesua shook her head at the thought of it, so that is what it meant to be someone’s wife? Unable to understand how the men felt no shame at treating their women so badly, she set her mind to brighter things, longing for the day to be over, so she could have time to herself again and challenge some of the boys she knew to a hunting competition.
“You must send her to the ceremony, the King is looking for a new wife and Adesua has as good a chance as anybody else.” Azemoya’s loud voice could be heard over the crackling of wood in the fire.
“She is my only child, I think I will wait another season before I think of such matters”, Anahero replied.
“She cannot belong to you forever, it is time to start planning for tomorrow”, Onohe’s tone was filled with amusement. “She is a woman now. I too will send my eldest daughter to the ceremony; if I have good fortune on my side she may be chosen.”
“I have not seen such a smile on your wife’s face for many seasons,” Onohe added, biting heartily into a kola nut. “But I do not understand you Anahero. Why do you not have more wives? People have been laughing behind your back for a long time. You would have had many children by now. It is a foolish man that does not see what is right before his eyes.”
“Let them laugh, Uwamusi has served me well.”
“She did not bear you a son, and you know people talk, it is custom to have a son to carry your name”, Azemoya said smiling, exposing various gaps in his brown teeth.
Anahero’s voice rose defensively, “I have Adesua.” He had always ached for more children and he knew his face revealed that need even when he attempted to persuade himself otherwise.
“My spirit troubles me about sending Adesua to the king’s palace.” Anahero spoke this concern lightly gauging the reactions, as his sense of foreboding for his only daughter was deeply troubling to him.
“You must consult with the oracle for guidance. It is time. She cannot continue hunting and climbing trees with village boys!” Onohe patted him reassuringly on the back with one hand while eagerly reaching for another piece of yam with the other.
After their guests left, Anehero and Uwamusi made sacrifices. They swam in the river with painted faces. And when the gods summoned those faces underwater, their heads broke through the rippling surface in acceptance.
Five days passed. On the sixth day an angry wind came from the north, hissing and spitting out defiant trees on arrival, whirling loudly and destroying whatever crossed its path.