Love is Power, or Something Like That
By A. Igoni Barrett
In this debut book of short stories by the Nigerian author, the tale with the most suspiciously cheery title is the most devious and enthralling. In it, the protagonist falls in lust with his cousin, 15 years his junior, and after his family takes her in following her father’s death, he becomes captive to his attraction; as their intimacy intensifies, the story’s repulsiveness borders on unbearable. But Barrett tells it with such detail and heightening intrigue that the story pulls the reader helplessly to its ending with as much power as his desire pulls the protagonist toward his cousin. It’s so wrong—and still utterly absorbing.
Set against his native Lagos, Barrett’s stories submerge you in the inner worlds of characters whose overtly flawed exteriors disguise deeper, more powerful problems. A boy crosses town to fetch food for his siblings and booze for his alcoholic mother; a corrupt policeman argues with his wife and, after a workday of bribes and prostitutes, returns to her in need of comfort. Though they are troubled and troubling, Barrett doesn’t condemn his characters, nor does he moralize. You take them at face value and watch as their faults steer them through love.
Brought to life by vivid scenes of Lagos and the distinctive sounds of pidgin English, the stories in Love is Power play out in vastly different circumstances, but they’re all rooted in a distinct place. Vague connections across stories emerge when, as a couple fights over their daughter’s love while the nation is turned upside down, names of characters from the other stories come up. Together, the stories don’t tell a larger narrative in the style of A Visit from the Goon Squad, but their connections open windows into the characters’ formative, problematic histories.
But what holds the book together is Barrett’s ability to immerse you in the external and internal worlds of his characters. As soon as he takes you out of the Lagos in which he has so meticulously placed you to go to Kenya, the people, the language and the city feel so foreign and strange; only the characters’ mercurial trips through love remain.