SEASON OF CRIMSON BLOSSOMS by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Cassava Republic)
Season of Crimson Blossoms is Nigerian journalist and author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s first novel, winning him the $100 000 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2016. It succeeds his book of short stories entitled The Whispering Trees, a collection whose title story was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.
Ibrahim, born in the city of Jos and currently based in Abuja, works as a journalist, an occupation that has imbued his fiction writing with a believability borne of keen human observation.
Admittedly, Ibrahim is a devotee of magical realism but, in this story, he exercises this impulse judiciously. Wispy lyricism is sprinkled leanly throughout the story, usually at the tail end of a chapter, as a window into the characters’ state of mind. As the story is partly about the trauma associated with violence, this device becomes a metaphysical portal through which we can inhabit the psyches of his characters.
Set in the predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria, the book follows the story of Binta Zubairu, a widow in her mid-50s who falls for Reza, a low-level political enforcer in his 20s. Reza and Binta’s initial encounter is hardly pregnant with the promise of an unlikely romance. Both are burdened by the gnawing electrical charge of familial loss. Binta, a survivor of violence that tore her family asunder in her former home in Jos, sees not her slain husband but her murdered son Yaro in Reza. In turn, Reza, with an ailing father and a mother he last saw as a child, feels the undertow of parental warmth in his budding liaison with Binta.
Their first few encounters take place in Binta’s compound, which is partly maintained by her son Munkaila and by sewing for her neighbours. The compound, populated by Binta’s grandchildren, is empty by day. This is until Binta’s daughter Hureira returns home unexpectedly. Her marriage is on the brink of failure, with her presence momentarily disrupting the rhythms of Reza and Binta’s forbidden dalliance.
Although Ibrahim spends a considerable amount of time immersing us in the contrasting worlds of Reza and Binta, he goes beyond these polar opposites, constructing a lucid, panoramic world for his characters, without ever being superfluous in his language choices.
Ibrahim does not wallow in indulgent descriptions. For instance, after describing the incomplete edifice that is San Siro (Reza’s domain from where he runs his small-time drug empire), Ibrahim does not overburden the reader with gratuitous depictions of its squalor. He gives the reader just enough to embellish the interiors of the inhabitants’ dwellings themselves. Much of the narrative unfolds with this insider’s instinct, which almost magically dictates when Ibrahim will pull back and when he unfurls.
This sense of restraint permeates how sex is depicted in the novel. Ibrahim’s lovers fuck by day, with the weight of an entire society propelling and even constraining each thrust. Even in the privacy of Binta’s bedroom (and later in the arranged convenience of a hotel) their body language is that of people whose lives are almost completely circumscribed by a host of parallel social mores, chief of which is religion. Ibrahim’s descriptions of Binta’s and Reza’s sexual patterns, in a sense, mimic these prescripts. The writer’s sensitivities betray a deep sense of honour for Binta and, doubtlessly, the millions of Bintas inhabiting Northern Nigeria.
When Ibrahim turns his attention to the performance of political power, he is less burdened by self-censorship, allowing himself controlled fits of humour. His portrayal of the avarice, bureaucratic sluggishness and Machiavellian ways of Senator Buba Maikudi, Reza’s political overlord, echoes the work of compatriot Helon Habila’s Measuring Time.
The senator’s roundabout manner and tendency to wallow in his own opulence as a way to maintain a psychological hold over Reza, recalls the Waziri’s hold over Mamo in Measuring Time. Mamo soon realises the extent of the office’s mediocrity.
Season of Crimson Blossoms, should it reach its core readers, could provide an opportunity for self-examination in the society it depicts.
For the rest of us outsiders, the author provides a glimpse into how lives are fundamentally changed by gratuitous violence and how the people left behind are left to fumble for their humanity — with or without support. It is a novel with its biases on its sleeves, for good reason.