(Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021); pbk £10.99
Dark Neighbourhood is a collection bound by dread. ‘Dark’ is an appropriate word, as these stories enter the dark recesses of the minds of troubled characters as well as dark places.
The collection opens with the titular story, and a strange list that establishes the experimental style that Onwuemezi uses:
One bottle of water, three hundred and twenty books, one hundred packets of cigarettes, fifty lighters, three boxes of toothpicks, a baby bottle, five litres of whiskey, one of gin, one hundred of vinegar, six kitchen knives…
And so on. It’s the kind of start to a collection that will either draw the reader’s eye or turn them off immediately. The style is certainly interesting; however, it has the drawback of making the collection more difficult to read. It is difficult to keep track of the narrative. An interesting moment is when the narration announces the death of one of the characters pages before it happens, creating a feeling of dread in the reader, ‘Later I’ll tell you how she dies’. Later the death is marked by an ident at the top of the page, increasing the sense of dread. The characters have a feeling of detachment that pervades the other stories in the collection, the characters in this first story talk of love and death dispassionately, like they are people who only barely feel their own emotions. When the main character is cradling the body of a woman she loved, it’s entirely unemotional for her and therefore unsettling for the reader: ‘Us concealed by the stronghold of trees, a narrow avenue where her body will have improper burial’.
Heartbreak at the super 8 is the most straightforward story of the collection. For some that would make it the weakest, however I think it’s the strongest. Here, Onwuemezi finds the best balance between her poetic style and her storytelling instincts. Unlike the other stories, I never found myself lost or confused. It is the story of a man who falls in one-way love with a sex worker. To portray this character in a way that is subtle is a delicate tightrope and it’s one that Onwuemezi walks all the way to the logical end of without falling off. In the end the main character is shooting his gun wildly into the air in anger after facing rejection and the reader understands his outrage, but feels no vindication in his actions, a difficult ending but a welcome one.
The final story, In the Heart of Things stars a character whose only relationships seem to be with their family, and then even, the relationships are very detached. The character can’t even seem to bear calling their sister by her name, calling her only by ‘Sister’. The implication is that losing their father at a young age has deadened this character to the world. In fact, the character is so disillusioned that she seems more connected to the local wildlife than her own family, with many words spent describing it in detail. Even that cannot be described as loving, but there is at least a level of interest which the character does not have in any human during the story.
The other stories in the collection include Cuba, which tells the story of a beleaguered hotel cleaner, The Growing State which details a man named Winner and his awful marriage, Bright Spaces spins a creepy yarn of a man and his dead brother, Green Afternoon tells an even creepier story of a man obsessed with blood and bodies. All the characters are detached, alienated, obsessed or any combination thereof. While ‘Dark Neighbourhood’ refers to a concept in the first story, is also an apt description of the collection itself, while there is no over-arching connection between the stories, there is a sense that the protagonists of these stories are lost souls with similar afflictions, neighbours in darkness.
Dark Neighbourhood is a well-written but difficult to penetrate tome of tales, recommended for the reader with a discerning poetic eye.