Set in the late 1960s, Igboland is narrated by nineteen-year-old Lydia, newly married to Methodist missionary Reverend Clem Davie, as they take up his parish in Nigeria at the time of the civil war and the Biafra secession that claimed about two million lives (1967-1970). Jeff Gardiner not only captures the feel of the place in a historical and geographic sense, but also successfully inhabits Lydia’s psyche. [Igbo is pronounced Ibo.]
Their house comprised white-washed blocks of stone, poorly plastered, a roof of thin corrugated aluminium; the spare bedroom’s ceiling had caved in. The bathroom’s chipped hand-basin’s drainage was a bicycle inner-tube leading out through a hole in the wall; the toilet was a fly-infested pit outside. Then there were the crawling and creeping things to contend with: no wonder she responded to this with ‘a harsh numbness gripped my heart’.
Often, she convinces herself that she was in the right place, and useful: ‘I felt certain.’ Yet by simply stating that certainty, there’s the hint of dissatisfaction to come. Is it her relationship with her husband, the nearby war-zone, or something or someone else?
The oppressive heat and her sole purpose being ‘the wife of the missionary’ might have been a great risk of ennui for Lydia, save that she soon took it upon herself to offer medical aid to the village folk, encouraged by the local doctor, Kwemto Umuwezie; she had no experience but learned fast.
There’s an ancient Igbo proverb: ‘Let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch’ – which boils down to ‘live and let live’ – yet few people live by it, as shown movingly here.
This is an accomplished novel that reads like Lydia’s comprehensive factual diary, replete with good description of the village, the food, the sights, and the people. There are moments of stress, danger and menace. Certain factions resent the presence of the white man – ocha – and offer intimidation; but neither Lydia nor Clem will succumb, though those times are tense. I have deliberately omitted mention of other important characters; there are strong emotional links forged between some individuals that create complications for both Lydia and Clem.
The Igbo people were desperately trying to gain some kind of independence from the Nigerian federal government, to create their own republic, Biafra. An echo of this search for identity can be found in Lydia – she wants to be more than an appendage to the missionary. How she achieves this, and at what cost, are revealed with touching sensitivity and inevitable grief; do read the book to find out.
A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon and Goodreads.