Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke

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Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This debut novel is essentially a love story. Set in a small village somewhere in Africa, it has all the exotica of that country accompanied by the author's lilting and gentle narrative.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Virago Press
ISBN: 978-1844086276

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The African village where most of the novel's characters live is called Mannobe. It is described as ... a laid-back, fruit-off-the-vine place for as long as people could remember. The reader is introduced to quite a number of characters, all with suitably exotic names, such as Jericho, Babylon, Driver. Not really apparent which of them is male or female which all adds to the mystique.

Jericho, (who's female by the way), is a beautiful young woman. She's curious about the outside world so like many before her, she's taken the brave step of sampling life in a big, bustling city. She returns to her home village with some rather pretentious airs ... and a rich suitor in tow. By sheer coincidence Jericho's mother had attended an interview in her past at her daughter's new boyfriend's family home. A veritable mansion with ... sweeping rooms that took longer than a river to cross. What a lovely way of describing luxury in an essentially poor area of Africa. Everyone thinks the next natural step is marriage and babies but is it?

Okereke literally barrages the reader with her characters at the beginning of her novel and it does take a little time for them to settle into the imagination. There's a sense of a bustling village in this book where communal meals are the norm and people are forever popping in to visit neighbours and friends. Okereke also takes a golden opportunity to share some of the local culture and customs with the readers. For example, she gives us quite a long and detailed run-down of the village's Festival of Lights. I immediately thought what a lovely name. She continues with ... each household placed two candles outside their home, one representing the past and the other the future.

We find out that Jericho's eye wanders ... someone else has caught her eye. She's completely and utterly confused as to what to do with all of these emotions swirling around in her head. And here we're given great chunks of narrative all about this love triangle - the ups, the downs, the unintended consequences. An emotional roller-coaster for all three involved. And Okereke's language is flowing and rather flowery. It's also poetic. The blurb on the inside cover tells us the author is also a poet. Very apparent. She also gives us the odd poem. While I did appreciate the African voice on the whole, I did find the novel at times a bit rambling, a bit without focus. I would also say that it is overly long. Some readers may find it all a bit dreamy, even a little irritating. I think that the plot (such as it is) is lost somewhat in the narrative. And that's fine but not over 400+ pages. Great wedges of long, meandering sentences are fine in moderation but in this novel there were simply too many for me.

Apart from the love triangle and associated gossip around the village, there's an interesting piece touching on man's intrusion on the land ... News about the forest filtered through the village like water through a sponge. But it didn't really go anywhere. The whole novel is really a celebration, if you like, of a culture known to the author and I did enjoy that aspect of the novel. Everything else was really secondary.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then try The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg.

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Buy Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke at


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