Grieving with Sunken Eyes

By Tunji Olalere


  • Title: Sorrow’s Joy
  • Author: Ogochukwu Promise
  • Publisher: Bookcraft Ltd
  • Number of pages: 387
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings’ – Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2

There are worse fates than cuckqueanry. Of the grim list, having one’s grief questioned by those who know nothing of one’s pain must rank high. In the wake of the abduction of the Chibok girls, a national cancer fungating in our breast, one social media commentator wondered if the grieving of the mothers was not exaggerated for television. A mother herself, she must have found the exhibitionism of prolonged mourning too strident for her ears.

But can we legislate on grief? Can we say that those who mourn cry too loudly? Can we question the threshold of pain or the responses to suffering? Medicine has attempted to grade pain: 0–10. And that ten, that pain, which has been described as the worst of one’s life, is it even pain? If pain must exist in relation to time, can there ever be a ten? The thunderclap, the labour cramp, the lick of fire: ten is a diagnosis in retrospect – from the numbness of death.

And there are many deaths. Many dyings. And cancer appears to be the great equaliser of our age, inching ever closer in demographics to that perennial abruption of life – Trauma. It is our black plague, and more. And as is our wont, we pick up our pens to make sense of and wage war against this nebulous crab whose appendages are in every tissue.

Ogochukwu Promise’s novel, Sorrow’s Joy, maps a young woman’s ‘passage through cancer’. On the brink of middle age, Sefi Noda is diagnosed with cervical cancer. The book is an extended soliloquy, revealing her internal struggles in coming to terms with mortality and the uncertainties of living.

In her seminal, 1969 work, On Death and Dying, Swiss Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross laid out her hypothesis about the different stages of grief. It was based on her experience with the terminally ill. She posited that while mourning deep personal losses, individuals would navigate through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Later, a stage of Altruism would be added.

In interrogating her own grief, Sefi grapples with her identity. As the daughter of a woman who herself succumbed to the same ailment, she charts parallels, unsuccessfully, between her life and her mother’s. She revisits old scores, questions motherly love and fatherly devotion. She sulks, raves, breaks down in tears, hallucinates, and courts death. She nurses hope and buries it. She despises the healthy, distrusts spousal dedication. She goes through these stages in no sequence and sometimes appears stuck in them for long periods.

She laments the incessant vaginal examinations during ward rounds, the investigations, the interventions required in her quest to be cancer free. There are other blushes: unresolved childhood misadventures, culminating in the loss of her hymen to a randy, teenage neighbour. The ensuing brouhaha is the stuff of soap operas.

The author does more. She subverts time and vacillates between the precarious present and a putrid past to develop a multidimensional narrator and perhaps engender empathy. The story of Sefi’s family is a psychological Pandora’s box: the time-worn battle of parents over the souls of their children, the Freudian affection between fathers and their daughters, a sulking mother who finds herself at the antipodes of her daughter’s attention. There are details of conjugal betrayal and financial emasculation. We learn that Sisi Sigi, Sefi’s obsessive-compulsive mother, collected semen for diabolical purposes and was possibly a drug baroness.

There are sections of Sorrow’s Joy that examine the indignities of life in the diaspora. Ayo, Sefi’s troubled elder brother, for all his foibles, is perhaps the best realised of this well-behaved cast. He physically assaults his father in adolescence, severs all filial ties, flees abroad to lead a shadowy existence, and completes his father’s humiliation on foreign soil with an Absalom moment. If there is any joy in this book, it is in the ability of Sefi’s cancer to trivialise whatever the siblings bickered about and reunite them in one final act of redemption.

Promise demonstrates satisfactorily her grasp of the cause of this dreadful disease that has killed many. The implication of the Human Papilloma Virus in the aetiology of this cancer was a breakthrough of modern medicine, and it is a tragedy that despite the availability of screening methods and vaccination this scourge continues to decimate our Sub-Saharan female population by the millions. It is laudable that the author succeeds in educating the reader on the predispositions, prevention, presentation, and care of cervical cancer without overtly appearing didactic.

In the hands of the adept, magical realism, for all its patches of purple prose, yields a profound exploration of the metaphysical, such as the event of an impending death. And in the early parts of this book, we encounter stalking shadows and hallucinations, voices that know no walls, an erasure of chronology, and necromancy that blends fluidly with the quotidian. This style is however not sustained, and the book often lapses into torrents of stream of consciousness that exercise the reader’s attention. One thinks of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and the manifold possibilities of a roving eye, uninhibited by the constraints of the material world.

In this book, everyone is a poet, a philosopher or both, be they doctors, cleaners, or drivers. The narration is an exercise in amateurish ventriloquism. Characters – whether Sefi’s thirteen-year-old, twin children, or her superstitious aunt – drone on in a monotone and are marionettes for one voice: a middle-class, well-educated, and self-absorbed consciousness. Many times the dialogue is stilted and the characters, like John Nash’s hallucinatory family in the biopic A Beautiful Mind, never age.

These characters remain planar, but is that the collateral damage of Promise’s fixation on internal, circuitous, philosophical dialogue or a consequence of the tendency of trauma to flatten the psyche and render all excursions two-dimensional?

This novel also suffers from editorial lapses and sloppy fact-checking. The faithful driver Mark, in the first chapter, becomes Mike subsequently in the book. It is unlikely that anyone, definitely not a thirteen-year-old, had access to the internet in this country twenty-five years ago. The medical register used in the book often makes one cringe. There is no such thing as ‘odenosquamous’ or ‘low milligrams of anaesthesia’. Psychopathic is also no substitute for psychotic.

Souls are proofed in the flames of conflict and disaster. A middle-class soul, however, seems to offer little in terms of stoicism. It is square metre by square metre of anxieties: the fear of falling off the economic perch, of becoming unable to afford the luxuries that distract from life’s inherent emptiness, and of keeping up with peers. What did conflict find in Sefi’s soul?

Sefi soliloquises until her laments become schmaltzy, and her questions, rather than poke holes in the reader’s priorities and apprehensions, become existential querulousness. None of it is redeemed by her decision to save accident victims or the predictable founding of a Sefi Cancer Screening Centre in the face of certain death.

Sorrow’s Joy is a book about the insipidity of spirit and self-entitlement of the middle class. If the sunken-eyed must grieve at short notice, they must compensate with a shriek.


Photograph: ‘Cancer’ by Dialysis Technician Salary


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Tunji Olalere writes from Lagos.