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Noteworthy: Arrows of Rain: A Novel by Okey Ndibe

Arrows of Rain: A Novel by Okey Ndibe; Soho Press (292 pages, $16 paper). Okey Ndibe’s first novel, “Arrows of Rain,” originally published in England in 2000, is finally coming out here Ndibe – who came to the United States from Nigeria in 1988 at the urging of Chinua Achebe – is a founder of the journal African Commentary; he was a Fulbright scholar and now teaches at Brown. So why did his debut remain under the radar for so long?

The answer might be found in “Arrows of Rain” itself, for this is a strange and at times unwieldy book. It is also smart and often deftly written, a parable of power and the humanity it strips away. Set in Madia, a fictitious African country ruled by an Idi Amin-like strongman named Isa Palat Bello, it begins as something of a crime novel when a prostitute is raped and murdered on an upscale tourist beach. It is New Year’s Day 1988, the anniversary of the revolution, and as the police investigate, we find ourselves on the edge of two worlds. “Most prostitutes are ogbanje,” an old man says, explaining why the dead woman appears to be smiling. The word refers to a being that “can die and return to life over and over again. To them, death is a game, that’s why they can laugh at it.” Much later, we get an alternate explanation: “(F)or those who suffer in this life, the grave can possess a dark allure.”

Somewhere between those two perspectives “Arrows of Rain” unfurls its defining tension: between old and new values, the traditional and the existential, the belief that we live in a world of spirits or we live on our own.

“In the real world necessity sometimes takes precedence over conscience,” Ndibe writes about complicity with the government while also reflecting the inner conflicts of his characters. None is as conflicted as Ogugua, the homeless man arrested for the murder, who takes on the persona of the mad god Bukuru when he goes to trial. It’s a deft move, allowing him to play a sort of holy fool. Still, even a holy fool can only go so far, as Bukuru learns when he testifies that Bello is a rapist and a killer.

There is much to admire in the novel: gorgeous writing, an abiding sense of moral implication, the recognition that corruption has its roots in every one of us as we blur the line of what we’re willing to live with, the compromises with which we abide.

– David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times