Review By Adebayo Adegbite
Book Title: On the Bank of the River
Genre: Prose (Novel)
Author: Ifeoluwapo Adeniyi
Year of Publication: 2015
Publisher: Panamacchi Books
Book Length: 285 pages
Ifeoluwapo Adeniyi’s On the Bank of the River comes at a time, when the older generations of Africans are worried that the younger generation of Africans no longer have an interest in African culture. The Novel is a coming of story about a girl named Enitan and her love hate relationship with her mother. It chronicles the young girl’s search for love which makes her flee into the comforting embrace of her aunt. She struggles to understand life and the paradox of love and human relationships as she tries to come to terms with a terrible family secret.
With On the Bank of The River, Adeniyi is not able to demonstrate her grounding in African culture; she is able to give the book a modern feel. It is a tricky balancing act especially for new writers and the fact that she is able to do so successfully indicates her quality as a storyteller. The story draws extensively from the author’s Yoruba experience, for example the motif of the river. Because the river is the source of water, the fluid that all life need to survive, it is often anthropomorphized as a sagely, benevolent deity bestowing its undeserved gift upon the people. As a result, The River features as an important aspect of the Yoruba cultural, social and spiritual life. Indeed prominent goddesses in the Yoruba pantheon like Osun, Oya, and Yemoja are goddesses of seas and rivers. Another aspect that Adeniyi draws from is the aspect of dance. Dance more than a form of entertainment is also an important part of Yoruba cultural and social life. It is noteworthy that the relationship between Asake and Adeoye revolves around the dance ground and the river.
One thing also noteworthy about the story is that the plot of the story is fairly simple, thus the reader is not subjected to endless pot threads that make many novels tedious to read. One feels that part of the reason why the books gets glowing endorsements from the prominent individuals that read it is that in addition to the plot being simple, the language is easy to comprehend and very accessible. Anyone regardless of age or level of education or level of literary interest can pick the text up and read it. However this simplicity of language does not reduce the quality of the work. The telling of the story draws comparisons with another kind of African narrative, the folktale, straightforward, easy to comprehend, yet with a clear message and strong artistic values.
One more reason why the story makes for an interesting read is the writer’s use of point of view. Adeniyi flips between the Omniscient narrator and the first person (I) narrator, and her usage of point of view creates refreshing perspectives from and on each of the characters. It is often said that point of view especially the First person narrator foregrounds the character and helps the reader to put himself/herself in the character’s shoes. Like the character of Luke Chandler in John Grisham’s A Painted House, the author shapes Enitan’s reality in a way that make her realistic and unpretentious , thus making her a character that every woman regardless of age can identify with, which makes the story more interesting to follow
The perceptive reader of On the Bank of the River will also notice that the text is much more than a work of literature designed to entertain, and teach a moral lesson. As Pius Adesanmi notes, “it is the writer’s responsibility to provide clarity on issues in his/her society.” that is precisely what Adeniyi has done with On the Bank of the River. She uses it as an advocacy piece to speak out against social and gender issues such as girl child education, which is represented in the novel by Dayo, Enitan’s bosom friend and against the stigmatization of the girl child as men like Mama Yeye’s husband, Dayo’s father do in the novel. The presence of strong female characters like Asake, Enitan’s mother; Mama Yeye, Aunt to Asake and Jibike; Angela, the assertive white woman who insists on naming people as she wishes (a sign that she does not feel bound by the naming customs of a patriarchal society). Adeniyi however does not make the mistake of allowing the story to devolve into a feminist opinion piece which would have ruined its artistic quality.
The reader who has experience and interest in such matters will also notice the author’s experience s a journalist seep into the story. Indeed the character of editor Paul and Nomenclature as journalists is probably Adeniyi putting some of herself in the novel. The practice of putting yellow journalism news pieces into newspapers on purpose (the predecessor of the practice now known in online news journalism as click baiting) is a practice that only someone who understands the nuances of journalism will recognize its merits. And it is Adeniyi’s experience as a journalist and quality as a writer that gives her the ability to use the story of the woman who cut her husband’s penis because he cheated on her (pg 237) and the resultant argument between, Jibike, Nomenclature and Paul to create a clever bit of foreshadowing of the real circumstances surrounding Enitan’s birth
Despite the novel’s many strengths, the observant reader will also note some weak points in the novel. One of those weaknesses is the point of view that I talked about before. Enitan’s story despite the prominence that Ife Adeniyi gives to it is not the main story. The main story is that of Adeoye and Asake. Thus the reader gets the feeling Enitan’s story could still have been told in the third person and it won’t have removed from the quality of her narrative. Asake’s story however, her relationship with her sister Jibike, with Adeoye, with Okanlawon would have made for a more interesting and more gripping story, if we had been allowed to see events from her own point of view. Even though the reader enjoys the story, he still leaves with a nagging feeling that the point of view was wasted on the wrong characters. Of course Enitan as the main character of the story helps further Adeniyi’s advocacy and feminist agenda (and this is not intended to be derogatory), but Asake’s story is far more interesting from a storyteller’s perspective.
Point of views apart, the language use of the novel often has a jarring effect on the reader’s senses and leaves much to be desired. There are a lot of cases of unwieldy expressions, either of using the more difficult expression where the simpler versions of those expression would have sufficed or of expressions that are, putting it mildly, incomprehensible “…watching their woeful swimming stunts”, (pg 149) “untainted supple brown pigmentation” (69), “felt it great sport to engage her…” (95), “Slow lonely steps” (117) “eclipsed my body in that bond of togetherness”. Also expressions like “pummels “(54) where “blows” would have been appropriate and at least two cases of using “dentition” instead of “teeth” are but a few examples of the writer not paying the required attention to proper language use thatcan be found all over the novel. These unwieldy expressions create the impression that is writer is trying to show off her level of experience and scholarship to her educated readers. As great as the story is, this kind of language errors make it a nightmare read for any reader with knowledge of language use.
Perceptive readers will also notice a few plot and continuity holes. How , for example does Enitan know to echo the sentiment of her mother that her aunt Jibike is a traitor despite no one ever having told her the story of Asake and Adeoye before? I think the author makes the mistake of forgetting that the fact that the reader knows the story does not mean all the characters also know it too. Also am I the only one that noticed a woman with no formal education (281) whatsoever quoting Tolstoy? Incidentally the quote in question is universal so Enitan’s mother would never have caused any reader to bat an eyelid, if she had not ascribed it to Tolstoy. It is amazing that neither the writer nor her editor(s) spotted that minor but potentially character rubbishing continuity hole.
Furthermore, there is a feeling that the Author never truly fleshes out the role of the river as a spiritual guardian to Enitan within the context of the novel. Even though it features prominently in the title, the River plays a surprisingly minor role in the events of the work. One suspects that Adeniyi just manages to give the River a role in order to justify its inclusion in the title of the novel. Its function in the novel is so minor that it might as well have been replaced with something else or removed altogether and no one would have missed it.
All strengths and weaknesses added up, On the bank of the River is a good read, realistic in its earthiness, a new voice among a group of emerging African writers seeking to redefine Nigerian and African literary discourse in terms of culture, gender identity and social values, and it is recommended for everyone to read.