Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh: ‘I’ve been imprisoned all my life, daddy.’

Cover image for Blessings by Chukwuebuka IbehIt was that cover that snagged my attention when I was pitched Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s Blessings. With its image of a strikingly handsome but melancholy young man, it fits the novel well. Spanning a decade in Nigeria beginning in 2006, Ibeh’s debut is a poignant coming-of-age story in which a boy struggles to keep his sexuality under wraps, afraid of the consequences of its revelation in a deeply homophobic society.

It seemed as though with Aboy, Obiefuna’s life had finally begun, a life he had been waiting to live. 

Obiefuna is the much wanted first child of Anozie and Uzoamaka. His mother had suffered several miscarriages before he was born only to find herself pregnant again with Obiefuna’s brother within two years of his birth. Ekene is the outgoing child, neatly fitting in with the other kids, while Obiefuna is the misfit, derided for his dancing skills and beaten by his father for them. This is a society where even the slightest hint of effeminacy will not be tolerated. When Anozie takes on a young apprentice to help in the family business, there’s a spark between the two boys that leads to Obiefuna’s enrolment in a seminary far from home. For three years he learns to pass as straight, joining in homophobic abuse half-heartedly from sidelines and failing to support his lover when he’s shamed in front of the school. There are few family visits and none home, his mother’s illness kept from him. Obiefuna settles into his studies at university, falling deeply in love with an older man just before Nigeria enacts laws so draconian gay men begin locking themselves into marriage.

He danced, oblivious to the heat of the sun rays, to the widows that flung open, curious heads peeking out to observe. He danced until his knees hurt and he collapsed on the floor, laughing and struggling to breathe.

Ibeh delivers his story in beautifully understated prose, depicting a strictly patriarchal society with rigid cultural rules in which Obeifuna’s parents are relatively liberal but Anozie first beats then banishes his beloved son for his behaviour with Aboy. Obiefuna is drawn with compassion and sensitivity, engaging our sympathy as he contends with heartache, fear and humiliation. There can be no happy endings here, as Ibeh makes clear, but as his moving, empathetic novel draws to its conclusion there is the possibility of hope, at least for Obiefuna. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come in the West that Ibeh’s story felt so old fashioned to me. I’m well aware that we are far from a liberal paradise but many of us have family, friends and neighbours in same sex marriages or relationships. Obiefuna, his lover and friends know no such freedom, or even the prospect of it.

Viking Books: London 9780241618257 240 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

16 thoughts on “Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh: ‘I’ve been imprisoned all my life, daddy.’”

  1. This sounds compelling reading. I have two gay friends undertaking a short term contract in Nigeria, who left in a hurry in fear of their lives, so this will probably feel very vivid to me.

  2. This sounds so poignant, it’s definitely a book I think I would like to read. Your review has persuaded me to buy it for my Kindle. I enjoy coming of age stories and this one sounds especially powerful.

  3. I’m going to recommend this to a couple of friends (former members of my book groups now living in the south west) as the themes sound right up their street, so to speak. (The cover reminds me a little of some of Claudette Johnson’s artworks, which I saw at the Courtauld last year.)

    1. Thanks for the link, Liz. I spotted your review and did try to leave a comment but WordPress was having none of it for some reason. Gorgeous writing – I did wonder if it might be autobiographical to some extent.

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