My thanks to Cassava Republic Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
An Unusual Grief is a story of grief but it is also the story of a woman’s journey to understand herself, and her relationships—one might even say her life so far. Mojisola Owolabi has travelled to Johannesburg to pack up her daughter Yinka’s flat, after the latter’s death. Not having been very close to Yinka, through this experience Mojisola is also attempting to understand the person her daughter was while also coping with her grief at the loss and guilt over the matter. But while coming to terms with what has happened, Mojisola also begins to examine her own life—her childhood and upbringing by a strict and very religious mother with occasional visits by a more fun-loving aunt; her marriage to Titus (Yinka’s father), with whom we soon find she has a difficult relationship; her experiences in her work life; the move from Nigeria where they belonged to South Africa; the illness she has struggled with and much else. As we move through the book, various aspects related to Yinka as well as Mojisola’s own life are revealed in bits and pieces—like peeling away the layers of an onion. In attempting to understand Yinka, Mojisola ends up ‘becoming’ her and living her life for a while, which takes her into challenging territory and experiences she never would have otherwise even imagined, and in which she also breaks free from the bounds in which she has so far been living.
The novel is written in a stream of consciousness style so we keep floating between events taking place in the present to memories and occurrences from Mojisola’s past—childhood, marriage, work life and motherhood. Going back and forth (and not in any particular order), we find ourselves navigating dreams and reality, past and present, memories and experiences, but never once in this flow did I ever find myself lost or confused in any way as to what was being dealt with or where we were.
While the novel centres on Mojisola, we are introduced to various characters—her husband Titus of course, her mother and aunt, but also people from Yinka’s life including her landlady Zelda Petersen (with whom Moji starts off on a tricky note but soon ends up befriending), and others who were part of her life (her friends and contacts). Each of them (all well drawn-out) provides her with an insight into Yinka but also becomes part of her journey to find herself. Many of them (in fact most of the ones we get to know closely) carry their own burdens and have their own struggles of which we also get a glimpse and which helps makes sense of them somewhat. One feels for most of them (Mojisola herself, Yinka, Zelda, but perhaps not Titus) and all that they have had to deal with.
The book deals with a range of subjects from grief and loss to friendships and relationships, love and betrayal, art and expression, patriarchy and propriety, roots and culture and definitely gets us thinking; even when going into uncomfortable territory, the author raises questions that highlight the hypocrisies that define our societies (for instance, through the character D-Man, a friend of Yinka’s who is into BDSM).
This was certainly a unique read, and very different from other books—poignant and heart-breaking in parts, challenging, uncomfortable and shocking in others, but one which kept me reading all through.
p.s. While this may not be a book that I would add to Keli Cat’s book Corner (not enough role for the cats), there was a cat (in fact two—the family cat, Mouse who we just hear of, and briefly meet)—Inanna who she meets first at Zelda’s and who Moji finds herself bearing some animosity towards, but who also ends up giving her some comfort.