Book review – Stranger in a strange land

2011-10-29 11:09

When Leke’s adoptive mother, Jane, dies after a long and excruciating illness, the awkward boy’s life takes a sad and isolated turn. His fraught relationship with Marcus, Jane’s academic husband, doesn’t help.

He grows into a borderline sociopath with no attachments to anything except the car that Jane bequeathed him – an old Volvo named Red – and a photograph of a mysterious woman he accidentally discovered among Jane’s possessions shortly before her death.

Leke has strange habits. He steals from people, stalks them and defrauds the medical aid firm he works for in order to make multiple visits to healthcare practitioners, to whom he presents fictitious ailments.

For Leke’s birthday, Marcus gives him a brown envelope. It contains the key to crucial parts of Leke’s identity.

In it are letters from his Nigerian father, Oscar, and through these letters and a series of flashbacks, Leke’s personal history is revealed.

Bom Boy is a moving, intelligent debut from Cape Town-based architect Yewande Omotoso, who thought it would be “interesting to write about someone totally estranged from society”.

“I first imagined (Leke) as a young adult (he is introduced to the reader at age 10) – alone, almost incapable of friendship. I even sometimes envisioned him as having some kind of pathology,” says Omotoso.

“I also wanted to explore the idea that someone so misplaced in society was living in a country that was not his own. And even though he’d been born and grew up there, he still didn’t quite fit in.”

The adoption theme in the story has two elements to it. There is the double loss in that Leke loses two mothers in the first decade of his life, and then there’s the controversial intercultural adoption that has tongues wagging.

There’s the cynical notion of the black baby as the white woman’s ultimate accessory and the sociopolitical arguments that accompany this issue.

Omotoso handles this with sensitive dexterity. It is easy to judge when you sit on the outside of what is a delicate and intimate family situation.

She explains the adoption theme: “In my process of discovering about Leke, I realised that he had been adopted and this played a role in his sense of displacement. But it had also played a role in his sense of being loved.

“I wanted the adoption to both have been a very safe, intensely loving space for him while Jane lived, as well as an anguished, desolate space after Jane died.”

She leaves the rest of the issue for the reader to decide.

Although Omotoso provides insight into parts of the lives of Leke’s biological and adoptive parents, the story is heavily centred on him.

His petty and not-so-petty criminal activity represents how he wishes to feel more connected to a world that he struggles to understand, a world that in turn appears to conspire to exclude him.

In his biological father’s letters, Leke discovers Yoruba folklore and the family curse. He wonders whether being far from the origin of this curse (Nigeria) has lessened its effect.

Leke is also a dreamer. On these two aspects of the story, Omotoso says: “For Leke, the real world is exhausting to navigate, so his dreams become his real life. The Yoruba stories are critical to the novel.

“The idea is that Leke is so formless, so ungrounded, yet there is such a solid foundation waiting for him somewhere just beyond his reach – in the letters, in his father’s stories. I wanted to contrast Oscar’s rich, culturally filled life with Leke’s barren one.”

It is not uncommon to attribute unfortunate circumstances to supernatural powers and although it appears that a rational Western scientific paradigm dominates economic and academic life, the allure of a curse hanging over you when things don’t look good is hard to resist.

That unrelenting need to have meaning in one’s life is also explored through the family curse in Bom Boy.

There is a small cast of characters who appear sporadically through the novel, yet they somehow stay with you.

Bom Boy is bittersweet with a pleasant, hopeful aftertaste.

Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso
Modjaji Books
250 pages; R180

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