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“Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories” Review: Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera’s Debut Novel Explores Memory, Loss, and the Agency of Remembrance

“Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories” Review: Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera’s Debut Novel Explores Memory, Loss, and the Agency of Remembrance

Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories

Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories is not only a tender story of one man’s regurgitation of lost time, it is a story filled with excitement, tenderness, and heart. Written with humour and often startling wisdom, this is a book that will keep you thinking, long after you have closed its last pages.

By Chimezie Chika

In Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera’s debut novel, Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories, a young man, Nosike, looks back on his early years growing up in the city of Benin in Southern Nigeria. He remembers the joys, the pains, and frustrations; thrown in-between these feelings is an ear for consummate humour and empathy towards the characters. 

Not since Purple Hibiscus has Nigerian literature had such a poignant entry in the bildungsroman form. Usually, novels in this mould chart the sentimental education of the coming-of-age of youth into young adulthood, along with all the familiar upheavals that attend it. Nosike’s story is no different in this riveting tale filled with subtle revelations and anti-climatic realisations. 

Chukwudera has a fastidious grasp of the bric-a-brac of growing up in the early to mid-2000s Nigeria, and this is tellingly evident everywhere in the novel. For a millennial, everything about this story is familiar. We see it in the careful infusions of current affairs and the vogue topics and entertainments of the time, this itself being a consequence of the author’s unerring eye for detail. 

One, though, longs for the author to give more atmospheric context: for example, what is Nosike’s parents’ shop like? What is sold in it? This is of even more importance when we realise that this author’s descriptive prowess is immense. Consider the poignant nostalgia of the opening lines, in which our hero describes his primary school and an early memory of chasing butterflies with his friends in the school field.

It is an opening worthy of the best literature from The Great Gatsby, to Things Fall Apart to A Farewell to Arms. Nevertheless, we are treated to the tender story of a boy’s coming of age in early 2000s Benin City. In Chukwudera’s typical reflective prose, the narrative opens to us like a blooming flower. Our narrator is compassionate, sensitive, and full of quiet intelligence.

Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories
Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories

His well-considered, carefully orchestrated observations about people ease us slowly into the story, and a lot of that empathy goes toward his buckling young self. Using memory as a mnemonic commute, we follow Nosike’s life, from his earliest memories to years of struggles, of love, of religion, of lack, of plenty, and finally to an appreciation that the best moments of our lives are found in the little, fleeting moments that go quickly by. 

This sort of pensive reminiscing, usually found in memoirs, permeates the story in every way, from the prose to the structure. In short, as the Proustian architecture of Chukwudera’s prose builds up incrementally, we encounter the subtle changes that occur in the way Nosike sees certain events in his life, before and afterward, like an aftertaste. 

One of the most striking attributes of Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories is its unerring sense of time; time’s ever-steady, unflinching march forward, its cyclical movements, its telling effects on the characters, and the overriding sense of nostalgia. Particularly, Chukwudera has a way of linking the passage of time, or its components in the material world, to given moments in the story. 

It makes each point of the story seem like an epiphany or a rare awakening of hitherto unknown revelations. And they are notable, these revelations, for the thing about coming of age stories is that the youngster version of the narrator is experiencing many things and sensations for the first time. 

There is an image in the novel, both literal and symbolic, of the characters always searching for something. More than the physical search for solutions to typical human problems, one gets a sense that the characters are also searching for their truest selves, for the very nerve or node of their own existence. Or, to put it another way, our narrator here is doing the searching himself, on their behalf, screening and sieving everything through memory. 

We see this especially each time he considers loss. Loss here is not the sentimentalisation of death. In the sense in which it often occurs in the novel, loss is the elegiac regurgitation of lost time, of a bygone era, of the mnemonic reaches of the past memory which cannot be physically brought back even by the most strenuous effort of sheer human will. 

Chukwudera’s language, through Nsoike’s narration, often exhibits the tempered judgement of a mature adult considering the rights and wrongs of the past. His language remains noticeably on the puerile horizons of a young boy, but he also retrospects each moment from the past and reconsiders each action from an adult viewpoint, wondering what would have happened if he had acted differently in certain situations. He passes these judgements knowing that, as a child, he didn’t know what he knows now. This propensity to reflect on each event and memory, each mishap and misdeed, each attainment and accomplishment, gives the novel a certain moral depth.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera

Chukwudera’s use of words and turns of phrase is laden with his typically reflective and psychologically nuanced imagination. Amidst the uncertainty of their son’s ailment, Nosike’s parents “were like travellers who had lost their way in the wilderness”. Nosike’s first friend in secondary school had a neat handwriting “slanted like a group of motorbikes on a curved track”. 

The aroma of Christmas food is described strikingly: “The air distributed the flavour of fried meat from one home to another like an exchange of aromatic pleasantries”. A fair girl passes Nosike and his friends outside the church and they fall silent before his brother tells everyone that she had sat near him during catechism; of his brother’s awed commentary on the girl, Nosike muses afterward that it was “as if our silence had assumed her shape and could be filled only by a word about her”.

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If there is one criticism for this novel, it is that at times the narrative slows down, but the truth is that such a novel does not need the sort of fast pacing mostly found in genre literature. The prose of the novel slow-burns its narrative into us, so that by the end, we come out feeling as though we have been through an entire life cycle, sapped of energy, filled with a certain novel encounter with raw human experience, and grateful for having encountered it. 

There are also errors of a mostly typographical nature which I hope a new edition would correct. Chukwudera has a tendency to infuse a lot of ‘Nigerianisms’ or peculiar phrases of Nigerian English—such as “giraffing”, “one-two, one-two”, wrong use of the phrase “used to” in poor and lower middle-class Nigerian households, etc—into the narrative. While this does no small work of familiarising the narrative to Nigerian readers, it could also push the prose dangerously, if the difference is not made clear, toward the trite and the unremarkably pedestrian.

Chukwudera’s dialogue is natural. Here, we do not see some of the naive foibles of newcomer novelists. It is clear, from his prose and the execution of the story that, even though this is his first book, the writer has practised the craft of writing long enough to master its initial pitfalls. In his writing of the novel, he is acutely aware of the progressive changes that occur in human relationships, between children and between adults who have developed into grown-ups from the altercations of childhood. 

This understanding plays out with such pathos in the novel that one feels its very life as if one was doubly experiencing it, like deja vu. At one point when Nosike rebukes his sister, Adaora, in front of his love interest, and Adaora cries from the embarrassment, he expresses his surprise at the time for the way his sister reacts to what was usually typical of their relationship. In retrospect, however, he admits that, as a young boy, he failed to understand that his sister cared for him: “There are indeed so many things lost in the innocence of childhood for lack of understanding”.

Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories
Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories

Chukwudera’s acute understanding of the way and manner in which a child encounters new sensations is evident everywhere in the novel. At one point, when Nosike fails a current affairs question about the governor of his home state, we realise the deeper significance of this. This uncharacteristic failure for a normally brilliant child shadows his own parents’ failings—symptomatic of their condition of exile from their home state as expatriates in another state. Somehow, they had failed to teach their child about where they had come from. Only the most psychologically alert novelists are able to nick this double entendre that occurs in impromptu moments in human interactions. 

What do we say for Chukwudera in this light? Perhaps, with Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories, we have just encountered one of the best coming-of-age novels to come of Nigeria since Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus  (and Chukwudera’s book is not a story of odious fathers and tyrant husbands). Even more than that hallowed novel, the promise of Chukwudera’s novel is like a bonfire lighting up the horizon of the future. 

Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories is not only a tender story of one man’s regurgitation of lost time, it is a story filled with excitement, tenderness, and heart. Written with humour and often startling wisdom, this is a book that will keep you thinking, long after you have closed its last pages.

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Terrain.org, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Fahmidan Journal, Efiko Magazine, Dappled Things, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture, history, to art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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