Ian Mond Reviews Dazzling by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ

Dazzling, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ (Wildfire 978-1-47288-964-3, £18.99, 352pp, hc) February 2023. (The Overlook Press 978-1-41976-979-5 , $27.00, 352pp, hc) December 2022

I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ’s work until after I finished her debut novel, Dazzling. I say em­barrassed because Emelụmadụ has been writ­ing speculative short fiction for a decade, with several of her pieces nominated for awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award, the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Nommo Award. Thankfully, Geoff Ryman’s series of articles “100 African Writers of SFF” on Strange Horizons (which is a terrific resource, by the by) has links to four of her stories, one of which, the Shirley Jackson nominated “Candy Girl”, is beautifully narrated by Emelụmadụ on the Apex website. But we’re here to talk about Dazzling, which was already garnering praise before it was published, winning the inaugural Curtis Brown (now Discoveries) Prize in 2019, described by head judge Tracey Chevalier as “bewitching”, “confident”, and “evocative”, and I certainly agree that the novel is confident and evocative with a voice steeped in Igbo culture and tradi­tion that immerses you in the worlds of both its teenage protagonists: Treasure and Ozeomena.

Set in Nigeria during the early to mid-1990s, we are first introduced to eight-year-old Ozeo­mena attending her Uncle’s funeral. Since his death, Ozeomena has experienced an itch on her back that no “amount of scratching could ease.” An encounter with a strange boy at the funeral, who places his hand on Ozeomena’s back, causes the itch to explode with heat and pain. Ozeomena doesn’t know it yet, but her Uncle’s spirit has chosen her to be the first woman initiated into the Leopard Society. It’s more than a secret sect, however. Ozeomena learns that she now has a gift, the might of the Leopard, which will allow her to defend her family from forces, physical and spiritual. But there is a cost. If she doesn’t find a “tether” – just as her father was the “tether” for her Uncle – the Leopard will consume her.

Ozeomena isn’t the only young woman dealing with supernatural forces. Having once enjoyed the high life, Treasure and her mother are living a hand-to-mouth existence following the brutal death of Treasure’s father. With her mother re­fusing to get out of bed, sick with grief, Treasure spends her days begging for money and food at the market. That’s where she encounters a spirit (“His feet. They are not touching the ground”), who promises Treasure food if she marries him so it can live again. Treasure initially refuses, but when the spirit offers to bring her father back from the dead, she is compelled to agree to its terms. Ozeomena and Treasure’s stories converge at an elite boarding school where girls have started disappearing and where Ozeomena, still without a tether, struggles to control the Leopard’s power and fury.

It quickly becomes apparent that voice plays a critical role in not only establishing Ozeomena and Treasure’s personalities but also in develop­ing Dazzling’s themes, especially around class. The chapters told from Ozeomena’s perspective are written in third person, present tense. The prose is urgent, reflective of Ozeomena’s anxious state of mind, but conventional in grammar and syntax. Juxtapose that against Treasure’s point of view, where the chapters are narrated in an idiomatic first person, a form of Naija. This dis­tinction cleverly signifies – free of judgement – a deep divide in Nigerian society, where education is not so much a right as a privilege enjoyed by the wealthy. As Treasure tells us, “It was me that went to be looking for food, to be fetching water. It was me looking after Mummy and not going to school.” It’s only when Treasure and her mother rejoin high society, with the help of the spirits, that Treasure, having begged her mother for the opportunity, is allowed to enrol at the same boarding school Ozeomena is attending. Even Ozeomena, with her middle-class pedigree, is bullied by the other girls at the school, uncon­vinced of her status as one of the elite. “Who is her father? What does he do? What does her mother do?… Has she ever been abroad?”

What is also striking about Dazzling, again served by a fidelity to voice, is the depiction of Igbo culture and spirituality. Emelụmadụ does more than draw on the mystical aspects of the religion. She shows that despite the faith’s displacement by Christianity, it still survives in the language, food, and traditions of the Igbo community. This contrasting tension between a pre-colonial belief system and a colonial faith is evocatively displayed in a beautiful, primal scene where eight-year-old Ozeomena, about to say the Apostle’s Creed for the Bishop, is taken over by the spirit of the Leopard (Emelu­madu’s representation of the Igbo faith). “A leop­ard balanced on a beam, high in the cathedral’s rafters, suspended in a shaft of the multicoloured sunlight that filtered through the bodies of saints in the stained-glass windows.”

Dazzling does just that: it shines brightly with a spirituality and vitality that left an indelible impression on this reader.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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