Book Review: Imminent River: A Transcontinental Saga

Imminent River
Imminent River

Imminent River by Anaele Ihuoma; Prima – Narrative Landscape Press, Lagos, Nigeria; 2018; 347pp

There is the compelling need for me to go back to the publishing of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976 to find a book that bears comparison to Anaele Ihuoma’s debut novel Imminent River. Just as after hearing grandma’s tales, Haley traces his roots back to the adolescent Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped into slavery to America from West Africa in the 18th century, Anaele Ihuoma regales us with the intriguing story that goes way back to early 19th century West Africa. The soul of the tale is the old matriarch Daa-Mbiiway, the bearer of the formula to prolong life.

Ihuoma stresses from the beginning that Imminent River takes its roots from fact as he writes in the author’s note: “This story may be fiction, but it is built on, rather than merely imitating, real life. The grand matriarch of the epic, Daa-Mbiiway, is unashamedly a great maternal aunt of mine, by the same name although spelt (if it ever was), Daa Mbiwe. One of my most exhilarating exhibitions as a little boy growing up in Eziudo community, my maternal home, was when I was asked to go to Itu, now HQ of Ezinihitte LGA, Imo State, Nigeria, by my maternal grandmother, Daa Nnennia Iwe, nee Abii, to go visit Daa Mbiwe.”

It is a mark of Anaele’s mastery that Daa-Mbiiway who uncannily disappears at the beginning of the novel curiously ends up holding the entire tale together through the spell of the much-coveted longevity recipe.

The span of the novel, divided into three parts, can be appreciated thus – Part One: The Progenitors (West Africa. Early 19th Century); Part Two: Prodigious Leap of Limbs (West Africa. 19th Century to Early 20th Century); Part Three: Blindfolds and Iron Fists – The Rocky Road to the Imminent River (Southern Nigeria: 20th Century). There is a mini-section in Part One bearing one chapter (14) entitled “Mid-19th Century. Trans-Atlantic to New England).

The book ends with “Epilogue: Ajaelu Tastes the Hiatus Music” where we read: “Urem Okakuko sat, pensive, in front of the Centenary Hall, Ake, Abeokuta, bathed in her own tears. Inside the Hall, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were performing Satchmo’s ‘Back O Town’ and Armstrong himself, the lead vocalist, was rhapsodising.” Further down the epilogue, Ihuoma writes: “It was 13 July 1934. Duke Ellington had released his hit track ‘Symphony in Black” in New York. That same day, not far from the Centenary Hall, a baby was born to the family of Pa Ayodele Soyinka in nearby Isara, Abeokuta.”

Let’s call that baby Wole Soyinka, the future Nobel Laureate in Literature who was Ihuoma’s Head of Department at the then University of Ife from 1978 to 1982.

Ihuoma’s blend of fiction, fact and fantasy in Imminent River intervolves the longevity progenitor Daa Mbiiway and her husband Okpuzu, the feuding plutocrats Jesse an Opuddah, the matriarch’s hostile sons Chimenam and Dioti-Ojioho, the suitable boy Ezemba and the village belle Agbonma whom Ezemba loves madly, Edidion whom Daa-Mbiiway almost adopted as a granddaughter, the treacherous and cultic High Chief Nnanyereugo Chris Ojionu, Urem Okakuko the storyteller, Wopara etc.

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The quest for certitude is not deterred by a letter that informs: “I have just realised that there is no such thing as the Longevity Formula. Or rather that the documents we have, with figures purporting to point us to Eldorado, is nothing but an attempt to send us on a wild goose chase.” Cracking the Nsibidi code of the Longevity Formula remains a life-affirming mission.

Disunity in the land makes the people susceptible to conquest and slavery. Conspiracy rules the roost. The comeuppance of evil comes translated in the news headline: “Strange River swallows HCO’s Ojionu Cottage.” It is a brave new world in which “Youths Demand jail for Eagloma cultists”, by listing “the alleged crimes of the fraternity to include, murder, unhealthy sexual practices, the so-called ‘Eagloma double’, political blackmail, archaic cultural practices such as bride battering and perversion of justice.”

Ihuoma’s Imminent River strikes a chord with Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1978 novel The Healers in which the protagonist Densu envisions African unity, just as the hero Ezemba gets the ultimate introduction from David thusly: “Sir, my name is David. I’m the son of Jesse, the healer from the Healing Home. We were rescued from the sea of malevolence. We are here to help the just retool.”

Ihuoma’s reputation as a poet is well-established. He has equally done commendable work as a playwright. His novel Imminent River is ample evidence of his roundedness in all the genres. His power of description can be enchanting, as note: “Even though he liked to reassure himself that it was Agbonma’s character, rather than her looks, that held his attention, he would be hard-pressed convincing God in heaven that her physical beauty had no part in it.

She had such lush supply of eyelashes and brows. Her deep, brown eyes themselves appeared to be set deeper from the rest of her face. This tended to project her face outwards, giving her something of a permanent smile and an inviting visage. You would think Leonardo Da Vinci had wanted to capture her in that immortal brushwork but could not and had to settle for the Mona Lisa instead.”

However, there is an error in the blurb of Imminent River which the publishers will need to correct in the next edition where “will take advantage off” is printed instead of “will take advantage of.”

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Anaele Ihuoma is unafraid to tackle the big themes. With Imminent River, he is poised to crack the canon.

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