The novel opens with the spirit of a woman haunting the West India docks, in London. She remembers two hundred years back when the smell of a dead boy gave her hiding position away and her and her unborn baby were dragged away, their freedom lost forever. She still searches for her Son, Uzo, who she hid before being taken by the slavers, and the daughter, although she never saw her, she knows that she had a baby girl, who she never got to name. On days she can hear them cry out to her, and she searches, the world for them, always returning to these docks empty handed.
Michael’s world is turned upside down when his eighteen-year old brother Simon, murders his stepmother. Michael, only sixteen, quickly realises that he is drowning, unable to handle the weight of the world crushing him. He does not even have enough money for his stepmother’s funeral, and his part time job at the super-market is not going to be enough to pay the multitude of bills.
With his mind fragile and his psyche fractured he turns to his best friend from his school days and starts to become ensnared in the world of drugs. Not just because he needs the money, but he needs a place where he can relax and mask the pain of what has happened. He doesn’t realise that this lifestyle is only a façade, the problems are still there and getting worse by the day.
Chapter five, returns the reader to Nigeria in 1981, to the little town of Obowi. This is the town where the ghost of the mother left her son before the slavers took her and she takes up the narration again. She laments that not much has changed until you start looking more closely. Some items such as the World War II tank left from the Biafran War, incongruous to her time, others have remained for over two hundred years. It is here in Obowi that we meet Ngozi.
Ngozi is anxious because she must move to Enugu, a village much larger than Obowi. Ngozi, does not want to leave her family, but has no choice, because she is moving to continue here education. She is worried that the family who she is staying with, the Asikas will not like her.
Through the eyes of the ghost of the mother, while continuing her endless search for her children, we follow the narratives of Michael and Ngozi, who for some reason she is drawn to.
We witness their lives changing as they get older. Both characters represent archetypical classes that they are locked into, a titanic effort needed to break the mould into which they have been poured.
I think that this is reflected in the brilliant choice of title. The Book of Echoes. Echoes representing the same lives, lives that are locked into similarity, never changing with each generation and weakening with each echo.
Both of their lives are extremely different but equally challenging. We live with the difficulties that Ngozi and Enugu experience. Amaka uses a wonderful phrase, “force-ripened into adulthood” as they try to escape from the stereotype and live a better life.
Throughout the novel, the narrative will switch back to the past when the ghost of the mother was alive, and we witness the horrible conditions she experiences after being stolen from her village. I don’t think that a novel can capture the cruelty and sadness that she would have experienced, but Amaka gives it a cracking attempt.
Amaka’s biography states that she started this novel twenty years ago and it certainly shows. There is no sign of this being a debut and it is smartly written. You can feel Amaka’s passion rising off the page. The novel covers an enormous amount of time, capturing the lives of the protagonists, from child to adult, but it never gets mired in the mundane, perhaps because the protagonist’s lives are such a struggle and such a fight to survive, they don’t seem to experience a boring moment.
Amaka does not hide that this book’s central theme is the oppression and struggle of black African people and women. She makes the excellent point of how far they and we as a whole society have come through the words of Marcia, Michael’s sister,
“Michael, it doesn’t look like things are changing because we’re living it. But over time, just as when we look back to our greatgrandparents’ time, we’ve moved a whole galaxy forward. In our great-grandfathers’ and -grandmothers’ time, we would have been out there cutting sugar cane for some slave master on some plantation, being whipped For Christ’s sake, we might not have even known each other or Mum – they might have sold us at birth. Or even forty years ago, would I have had the opportunity to go to the school I went to?”
In this novel, it’s Nigeria and England, but the narrative holds true for the world. We are making, and have made huge progress to wiping racism, sexism, and bigotry from the world, it is hard for us to see because we are living in the moment, but hopefully in the next couple of generations, if we have not destroyed the planet, we will have at least destroyed racism, sexism and bigotry.
I requested this book for review because of it’s narrative, it’s strong theme of racism and the struggle of those who experience it. Growing up in Queensland Australia, I experienced many forms of racism inflicted on the Aborigines, who are mentioned a few times in this book. Everybody in this world deserves the same chance, the same opportunities, the same happiness as everybody else regardless of race or sex.
People will read that sentence and say, Oh but it’s not that simple.
But it is!
Rosanna Amaka grew up in South London and is of African and Caribbean heritage. As a child she loved writing short stories later progressing to novels, which she has spent many years crafting.