For the Love of Book Reviews: ‘Stifling Embrace’ by J. N. Mbunabo

Title: Stifling Embrace (A Collection)
Author: J. N. Mbunabo
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 194
Publisher: Nwanne Books Limited
Date of publication: 9th December, 2019.
Narrative technique: First person, omniscient

About the book

In this collection of short stories set in Africa, J. N. Mbunabo delicately explores the complex lives of ordinary people, creating compelling worlds and characters so relatable that you feel bereft when each story ends.

The stories contemplate the anomalies in an African sociocultural environment with sobriety and sprinkles of humour. In ‘Freckles,’ the perils of a discriminatory culture is seen through the eyes of children. The story ‘Impulse, ‘ reinforces the dominance of a flawed perception of beauty, and the dangers of feeling physically inadequate; and ‘Stifling Embrace,’ expounds a heartrending tale of love, abuse and betrayal. Mbunabo’s ability to piece together original stories that adequately portray Nigerian society is sublime.

With this beautiful and stirring debut, Mbunabo shows us she’s one to watch and we can expect much more from her in the future.

Author’s bio

J. N. Mbunabo, author of Stifling Embrace

Jennifer Nkiruka Mbunabo

Jennifer Nkiruka Mbunabo is a writer, lawyer, arbitrator, chartered secretary and administrator, and supporter of worthy causes. She is a perceptive Optimist who is eager to learn, take on challenges and produce optimal results. Her poems, short fiction and non-fiction have been published online and in print. She serves as a Legal Officer in Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund. She is a member of International Federation of Women Lawyers(FIDA) Rivers State Chapter. She is currently volunteering with a team of young professionals in Menazuka Care Foundation on projects to promote literacy and advance the protection of child rights in Nigeria.

Let me first state that the book is made up of nine short stories namely: Freckles, One Chance, Impulse, Stifling Embrace, Noonday, The New Soul, Wasted, A Means To An End, and Waiting For Father. Each story is laced with a salient societal issue which we are all aware of, but needs addressing all the same, because awareness can not be overemphasized.

Just like In Dependence, my honest opinion of this book will lean more towards a thematic angle starting from the first story to the last.

One…two…three… here we go.

First off, the level of discrimination against people seen as ‘different’ or tainted in the African society is represented through a child who symbolises Tanzania in Freckles. According to a body of research I came across here, Zeruzeru (ghost) is a derogatory Swahili term for people with albinism in Tanzania. Just like they are called afin in Nigeria. This stigmatization and hostility towards them for something that isn’t their fault exposes the backward and ignorant state Africa still wallows in.

Furthermore, the officers taking turns to rape the main character in Wasted is a reminder of the glaring, faulty state of the law enforcement and human rights protection agencies and the misuse of power in this part of the world. It’s sad, but it is what it is; people still suffer unjustly and police is NOT your friend except you’re rich.
As for Impulse, I really do not have much to say. I actually envisaged something cliche, like Victor turning out to be a bad guy and Stella making a terrible mistake or something. So, it’s safe to say I was kind of satisfied with the turn of events. We do not have to accept the society’s ideal of beauty.

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In Stifling Embrace, the hushed matter of incest and molestation as well as it’s long-term psychological effect(s) crawling into adulthood and marriage of victims rang home, but I couldn’t help feeling quite confused with the sequence of events. Of what relevance is the natural disaster at the beach to the plot revolving around Kiki and Ikem’s marriage? Coco’s death will no doubt severe anything left of their childless and unhappy marriage, but the whole thing just didn’t sit right. I like to imagine things as I read, but it proved difficult in this case because I couldn’t clearly visualize all the action. Perhaps Coco could have died in another less confusing way? By the way, NEMA stands for: National Emergency Management Agency (Nigeria). If you read the book, you’d understand.

The “blackbird” in Noonday reminded me of a short story I read a long time ago with the same if not identical tone and plot; only that it wasn’t a dream. The truth is: Africans cannot entirely deny the existence of the supernatural at work in this world, a.k.a Juju, and this reflects in much of our works, art, etc. Hence, I found that particular story dull and cliche. One Chance also has a cliched plot that I didn’t find interesting, though I got the message. I mean, it’s in the news, on your street, everywhere – girl’s coming to ill-fate or ‘one chance’ in their quest for quick cash from men. They even call it Yahoo+ these days, I think.

The author goes on to examine and question a woman’s ‘place’ or role in the African society in A Means To An End. For example, it is perceived as out of place for a twenty-eight-year-old woman to be unmarried and without children. “Continue to stay here when your mates are getting married and having children, after all I spent on your education…” Ada’s father taunts (pp. 138-138).
African parents and their selfish cum greedy ambitions concerning their children however subtle, are also not spared. Ada’s father camouflages his order for her to “‘catch an eligible bachelor” while on her new assignment at work as a ‘humble advice.’ To him, “God” has finally answered his prayers. How dare she think of quitting her job despite the unsavoury conditions she is being faced with, when the family depends on her income? No, what a good African woman would do is snag a man rich enough to shoulder the never-ending family expenses while the parents sit back and thank God for their good in-law. Sweet. This brings to mind, Elnathan John’s Be(com)ing Nigerian (review coming up ASAP, by the way) and the hypocrisy of it all.
I particularly enjoyed The New Soul; it is relatable in a humorous and satirical way. Religiosity of Africans and the foul hypocrisy of the so-called ‘men of God’ in pursuance of ‘souls,’ are things we are not alien to in our society.
Interestingly, the plot twist in Wasted caught me by surprise, I really didn’t see Nneka’s evil scheme coming. I loved it!

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Child abuse, and the stock/stereotypical character of the wicked stepmother is prevalent in Waiting for Father. This isn’t surprising, as the author herself is part of a non-profit organisation dedicated towards the advancement and protection of child rights. What I am not entirely clear about is the abrupt manner in which the stepmother’s evil reign ends, if Mr Paul Emenike knew about his daughter’s maltreatment and his wife’s plans all this while, why didn’t he find a way to intervene prior? If she sent kidnappers after him, does it mean the contents of the calabash under the bed are not potent? Why does the stepmother bother with the pretence of turning a new leaf and enrolling her stepdaughter for WAEC tutorials when her husband will not get to witness any of that? She planned on killing him before his arrival anyway in order to get ninety percent of his income, anyway, so… ? Oh well. Still, I liked how the author weaved in the goal of NSITF (Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund where she currently works; to promote awareness for a safer financial future for employees in the event of unforseen circumstances.

Other areas explored in this book include: polygamy and childlessness in the African setting.

Of all the stories, A Means To An End turned out to be the longest, with a total of 44 pages (pp. 131-174) to my delight. This is followed closely by Stifling Embrace, with a total of 36 pages (pp. 55-90), much to my chagrin.

In all, Stifling Embrace was a good read for me, but I don’t think I’d read it a second time, which is unlike me. The book didn’t necessarily keep me turning the pages, neither did I care too deeply about any of the characters (only Ada came a little close), but I commend the author for this heart-warming debut. The art and business of writing is by all means an arduous one, moreso, when salient messages are being passed across.

Who should read Stifling Embrace?

Basically, anyone. If you’re also big on the protection of human/child/women’s rights, which I think everyone should, then this book might interest you.

Where to buy?

If you’re in Nigeria, you can get Stifling Embrace here for N2,500.00.

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