The characters in A. Igoni Barrett’s short story collection, Love Is Power or Something Like That, are linked to each other within the chaos and contrasts of Lagos, Nigeria in a nation cycling since the end of colonialism between democracy and dictatorship, reform and intractable corruption. They are dreamers and strivers who sometimes literally tumble into potholes of bad luck while living out the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The instinct to love is also part of the chain: a father struggling to save a sick infant daughter; a son trying to nourish a drunk, abusive mother; grandmothers who try to nurture neglected grandchildren; two feuding old women abandoned by long departed children who must rely on each other for mutual aid; cousins unable to resist an illicit attraction; a wife trying to placate a husband’s raging despair.
In the story “The Shape of a Full Circle,” fourteen-year-old Damié comes home from school to his hungry brother and sister and their mother, Daoju, in drunken disarray on the bed. The boy goes on an odyssey to get food for his siblings and drink for his mother. He witnesses the arbitrary violence of the powerful over the weak: an army sergeant beats a police officer trying to manage a traffic snarl, and the landlord forces Daoju to trade sex for rent. Damié participates in the violence of the weak over the weakest by joining a group of boys tormenting a local “madwoman.” Later, one of the boys, Eriga, asks him:
“Why you stone that crazewoman?” . . . His eyes were fixed on his companion’s hand—the long, tapered fingers, the bitten-down nails, the network of fine veins. . . . “Nothing,” he replied. But the image rose in his mind of his mother sitting in bed with her knees drawn up and her hands pressed against her ears.
Eriga is revealed as a ruthless pickpocket. Damié comes home empty-handed to endure the blows of his mother. The children seek refuge with Perpetua, their grandmother, though she is estranged from her daughter Daoju. We wonder at how far Daoju has fallen from the faded but still middle-class situation of Perpetua, her pleasant cottage now behind bolts and barbed wire.
In the title story, Barrett portrays a police officer struggling in a stream of predatory opportunism and violence, surprised by the rage his impotence brings, feeling the futility of trying to stand in the way. He comes home to the children he loves. He comes home to the wife for whom he feels both passion and guilt. “Estella was bent over the stove in the corridor. She looked up when a shadow fell across her cooking pot and, recognizing her husband, gave a cry, which was choked off before it could declare itself as fear or delight.” The corrosive feelings, symbolized by his uniform, combined with the lubrication of drink have caused past damage and threaten what is most dear to him. Estella creates his only safe place. Only she can remove his uniform and listen like a mother to his litany of miasmal despair.
Most of the stories are in a third person close narration. Barrett also uses first person to great and sometimes comic effect. In the story “Trophy,” the narrator comes to a provincial town to give a workshop for the “Front-runner’s Club” on Leadership. He becomes temporary friends with a local schoolteacher, Babasegun, distinguished by “tiger claw” tribal marks on his cheeks, who is charged with showing him the town. They bond over a Tupac ringtone on the teacher’s phone:
. . . a song I had learned by heart maybe twelve, thirteen years ago. At the time I was in my second year of university. I was a shave-my-head, pierce-my-nose hate-the-East-Coast-and-Biggie 2pac fan. I was still with Comfort, my first girlfriend. I used to rap the song to her, chopping the air with my hands, playacting my martyred hero. These days, whenever I listened to rap, I chose Kanye West.
He is the Lagos version of the global, khaki-and-linen, rising thirty-something middle class. The title, “Trophy,” refers to more than just a brand of local beer. Babasegun laughs at the visitor’s metrosexual use of deodorant, but they share the macho ethos of womanizing that applies not only to waitresses, but also to sixteen-year-old high school students. Events reveal the ambivalence and dependency beneath the rhetoric.
The characters in “The Shape of a Full Circle” return in “Godspeed and Perpetua.” The earlier stories become an ironic and tragic coda to the narrative that unfolds later, forcing the reader to reevaluate the complexity underneath the stark social realism. Throughout the book, Barrett locates the characters in their city, country, and continent, mired in history that constrains possibilities. He keeps his compassion even as he holds hope in abeyance.