Satans and Shaitans Review: “Obinna Udenwe’s bracingly contemporary Nigerian crime thriller is a sprited but flawed debut”
Obinna Udenwe’s debut novel, Satans and Shaitan’s, published by Jacaranda Press, is as contemporary a novel as you can get about Nigeria right now.
It encompasses the troubling rise of a terrorist group, the dubious nature of Christian evangelism and the ingrained corruption in politics. Udenwe has a finger firmly pressed on the pulse of Nigeria’s current challenges giving the book ample opportunity for relevance at a time when a good number of novels are preoccupied with the country’s past.
The trouble here is the execution. Crime thrillers already suffer from a lowly status compared to so-called high literature but its tricks and tackles are not easily mastered. Novelists as esteemed as Chris Abani have tried with admirable ambition but struggled as with his novel, Secret Lives of Las Vegas. So it is perhaps understandable that Udenwe has fallen short in his debut novel. The story of Satan and Shaitans contains on two major strands, the first about a cult called Sacred Order whose aim is to arm the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Their members include prominent business man Chief Donald Amaechi, popular evangelist Chris Chuba and a Hausa Islamic cleric Sheik Mohamed Seko. The second is a secret love affair between Chief Amaechi’s son Donaldo and Adeline whose father, Chris Chuba, is a popular evangelist.
Both of their parents are members of the cult and it is made clear that Chuba’s rise to fame is at the cost of his one day sacrificing his only daughter; when Adeline goes missing just as her time as a sacrificial lamb is at hand, the Sacred Order suspect Chuba of foul play, putting him a bind because he genuinely cannot account for his daughter’s disappearance.
Dialogue is one of Udenwe’s strong suits, credible as is “storying”; There is never a shortage of it, so much so that you could argue there is a glut of it. In fact the book is often times like a power loom whose chief attribute is its superior mechanism and not the cloth it weaves. Little of the plot threads hold up to scrutiny and characterisation is largely done by broad strokes.
To add to this is a creeping problem in recent Nigerian fiction where writers from one part of the country fail to successfully depict the words of those in others. Littering a Hausa man’s speech with the words “shekenan” and “haba” are lazily offered in Udenwe’s novel as markers of authenticity; suffice to say that listing the many deficiencies of this book would make for too critical a review without intending to.
While the enterprise needed to finish a novel is laudable, being accustomed to the requirements of the genre and the ability to pull it off is what ultimately makes a book worth a reader’s time – and it’s not resoundingly clear that this novel achieves it. All writers are bound to begin with an apprentice novel. The only problem here is that Udenwe published his.
Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost.