THE PLOT: ‘The Strangers of Braamfontein’ by Onyeka Nwelue is a novel about illegal immigrants in South Africa. The principal character is Osas, a boy who has travelled from Edo State in Nigeria to Braamfontein in search of a better life. He enters a criminal gang and works his way up, but he can’t escape the nefarious actions he undertook to get to South Africa in the first place. As he mixes with various people from across Africa (Zimbabwean prostitutes, Ethiopian human traffickers and Francophone syndicates), he struggles to find his place in this new world.
RATING: I feel so bad because this book is printed by a small press and written by a Nigerian author, but I did not enjoy it. I have to be honest – I DNF’d at 200pages because I was so bored. The blurb sounded interesting but the storytelling structure was confusing and the characters were inconsistent, so I just could not bring myself to care. It’s not plot-driven enough to be crime and it’s not written well enough to be literary, so I legit do not know what genre this is. On the positive side, I liked the gay representation but please read this book with caution as there could be a trigger warning for depictions of violence towards gay men.
GOOD BITS: The concept for this novel is great. I really liked the idea of reading about a young boy’s illegal journey out of Nigeria to South Africa for a better life and how he is sucked into a life of crime. I was excited for a compelling cast of African immigrants trying to hustle in South Africa. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get this story. However, if someone were to buy the film rights and do a drastic overhaul so there is a central narrative arc, I’d watch it.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: This novel felt like an early draft. There were huge chunks of exposition and backstory for random characters but we never got a cohesive plot. I know my tastes skew more commercial and I tried to keep an open mind but some of the character inconsistencies, random plot points and badly placed flashbacks made the book feel like it had been put together in the wrong order. See my blog for multiple examples.
- There was a section where a prostitute, Ruth, visits a traditional healer. Ruth says she’s the only person sleeping with Osas, even though there is not one scene or hint of her sleeping with Osas earlier in the book. Then, in the next chapter, she seduces Osas for the first time.
- I didn’t get how Thapelo went from being a poor student looking for a sugar daddy (in a subservient position) to buying drugs and a prostitute in a hotel room (in a dominant position) within a chapter.
- I was completely lost when Chike agreed to have Thapelo murdered but, in the next chapter, he’s shocked and confused by the murder and begins to blackmail the murderer. Up until that point, I thought he was the mastermind behind the murder!
- Osas went from a small boy to senior level in the criminal gang very quickly. I could just about get on board with this, but the stupidity of his actions and the way he alienated people in the second half of the book did not match who he was in the beginning. The reader doesn’t see enough of the transformation to believe it because the scenes jump all over the place.
This novel had to be read by several people to get published so perhaps I missed a lot. I don’t believe I struggled with the pidgin, but maybe there was something lost in translation (e.g. Nigerians sometimes say ‘I am doing X’ to mean ‘I will be doing X’). But I really don’t think the problem lies with me… And the various typos throughout the book compounds that someone needed to pay more attention to detail.
OVERALL: This book reminded me of ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe and ’10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World’ by Elif Shafak, which are both excellent novels that I recommend.
Thank you to Abibiman Publishing for my #gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.