By Ukamaka Olisakwe
Julius Bokoru’s “The Angel That Was Always There” is a beautiful book, but it is a very dark story about a child grappling at life, trying to make sense of who he really is. Struggling and failing. Confused and lonely. Saved intermittently by the love of his mother, but losing that mother when he most needed her. It is heartbreaking. It is heartrending. The story leaves your shivering long after you’ve left it. Because here comes young Julius, ambling down the pages, whispering haunting memories in a swaggering bravado—sputtering pretty prose-poetry and acting all tough—when all I wanted to do was to smother him in a hug and assure him that it would be alright.
The book, set partly in Port Harcourt in present day Rivers state and what became Bayelsa State, opens with the story of Hetty Lewis, the author’s mother. Julius traces his roots through Hetty’s memories, long before his seed became a thought, back when Hetty was a teenager. And for the first 49 pages, you revel in the spirit of this young woman who stood tall and unflinching in face of constricting conditions.
Hetty was a fearless, strong woman. Her Mills-and-Boomish relationship with Trust Bokoru (who would become Julius’ father) began years after she bested him in a fight. A love triangle ensued when another man, Jonah Donghahbeyi, a distant cousin of Trust Bokoru, walked into the picture. A returnee from America with an accent and an ego the size of Port Harcourt. Jonah won Hetty’s hand, but not her heart, not entirely. Trust would not let go. He kept interrupting Jonah’s picturesque marriage to Hetty, bleating promises of love and forevers, begging Hetty to return to him. Hetty did not. Trust finally left, carrying his hurt on his sleeve.
This is the kind of story you want to watch on TV. But it didn’t end well for Hetty and Jonah; a change in government policy led to an economic clampdown that whittled Jonah’s source of income. Soon, the gauzy veneer wore off and the ugliness beneath choked their marriage until Hetty was forced to steal away with her daughters one wet night, to start over, as a single mother.
Trust was lurking. He returned this time, with fresh declaration of I-love-yous, winning Hetty’s heart, again. The obvious snag that he was married to another woman and has children too didn’t seem to faze Hetty. It was in this fixating phase that Julius was conceived.
Life in the ‘90s was not much different from today; a woman without a husband was sneered at. But it was made easier with Trust hanging around, tall like an iroko, the only light in Hetty’s home. But on the day Julius was born, Trust suddenly, strangely, walked away without a second look back.
It was here that Julius’ memories began.
For little Julius, life was a string of difficulties knotting his early years. At three, he was yet to grasp the concept of “daddy.” At the close of school each day, he felt left out whenever his mates hurry into the arms of their fathers, yelling “daddy, oyoyo!’ Little Julius would later assume that ‘daddy’ or ‘papa’ was what you called a matured male. And so he went about calling every older man he met “daddy” oblivious of their puzzled glances.
This is the experience you don’t ever wish on an enemy’s child.
His sojourn to find a father, any father, grabs at the heart’s strings. Hetty tried to fill in the gap but society reminded her and her children that they did not fully belonged. And when young Julius would not bear the taunting anymore, he demanded to meet his father. Hetty took him on long trip to Port Harcourt, to meet the man that fathered him. All through that journey, Julius wondered what his father looked like, how they would reunite, if he had his father’s lips and complexion. At his father’s office, they were kept waiting for hours. Hetty was irritated. Julius was hopeful. Much later, a tall, dark man came out, sporting a gaudy smile and pushing naira notes at Julius’ direction, walked away. Julius would not believe that was his father, the same man he had longed to meet.
This cold, dark book is only brightened by a brilliant narrative. So brilliant, the numerous editing issues couldn’t dim its shine.
This is a book you will return to because at the end of the day it is a triumph. A triumph for Julius who learned the art of forgiveness, who began to accept who he really was. A triumph for his mother who raised this strong son. But this remains the most disturbing book I’d ever read, because I still can’t erase that picture from my head—of a child begging for a father, imagining what his father looked like, getting flogged by his teacher because he didn’t draw a picture to depict his father, not because he didn’t want to, but because his young mind could not articulate a concept it has not experienced.
The Angel That Was Always Here could have been better edited. The excerpts from his mother’s diary could have been limited to snippets and not entries running into pages, bogging down the compact book with unnecessary details, and interfering with the narrative. The conversation between his grandfather and his mother when Julius was 6 years old ran on and on, and at a point you begin to wonder how an adult could recollect structured conversations from almost two decades ago. This is where the editors would have stepped in and guided the delivery of this important book. But these holes do not ruin the fine board on which this story is set.
It is one thing to whip up an engaging fictitious story, but another to have memories and vulnerabilities marinated and spread all over a book only for a reader to poke through every detail and scrutinize if one bit was overcooked or over-spiced. Voluntary flagellation, which is what I call this genre, takes a huge dose of selflessness to achieve and Julius must have downed a very tall glass of it.