I first encountered A. Igoni Barrett here at The Millions, with his autobiographical essay, “I Want To Be A Book.” The title of that essay drew me in, as did the title of his debut short story collection, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That. In “I Want To Be A Book,” the essay’s title refers to the author’s childhood desire to be something that will hold the attention of his mother — a desire that pushed him to learn to read at age three. But it also refers to the author’s struggle to reconcile his inner life — an introspective, imagined life, directed by books and reading — with the outside world — an unpredictable, disordered, and sometimes violent place. In the essay’s eleven linked episodes we see a boy grow into a young man and eventually a writer. Many of Barrett’s best qualities as a writer are displayed in this essay: his sincerity, his depth, his emotion, and on the technical side, his ability to quickly indicate character and the passage of time. These gifts would serve any writer well, but they seem especially suited to a novelist, and as much as I enjoyed the stories in Love Is Power, there was something about them that left me pining for a longer work.
The strongest story in the collection, and also one of the longest, “Godspeed and Perpetua” had the weight of a novel and a beautiful ending, yet I felt somewhat cheated. The story charts the ups and downs of an arranged marriage between a Nigerian civil servant and his much-younger wife; they have a baby girl, Daoju, whose arrival awakens love and jealousy in equal measure. By the story’s end, the family’s fortunes have plummeted due to government upheaval, and Daoju, a typically impetuous teenager, unwittingly leads the family into tragedy. The last paragraph is a heartbreaker, summing up the whole of a marriage and a life, but I wanted to read even further to learn what happens to Daoju in the future. Another strong story, “The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh,” about a love affair between cousins, also seemed incomplete. The story ends abruptly, with a somewhat expected scene, and I was left with the feeling that some essential truth about the characters had been withheld.
Then again, maybe it’s unfair to criticize a short story for being too short, especially from a writer whose talent still feels new and in some places raw. In the introduction to his collected short stories, John Cheever excused his own early works with the observation that writers often grow up in public: “A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas off a fork…a selected display of one’s early works will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Love Is Power displays some of this naked history. Some of Barrett’s stories feel like experiments with voice and tone, particularly the humorous ones, which were more like sketches than full-fledged stories. His opening story, “The Worst Thing That Happened” was, for me, one of the slowest-going in the collection, redeemed by its ending. In fact, I wasn’t completely drawn into Love Is Power until I reached Barrett’s third story, “The Shape of a Full Circle.” I have no idea if these stories are arranged in chronological order of creation, but it certainly seems that way, with the final two stories, “Godspeed and Perpetua” and “A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings,” written in an assured, efficient, direct style that seems finally to shake off all influences.
Barrett was born in 1979 in Nigeria, and almost all of his stories are set in his home country. Many early reviews emphasize this aspect of his work, and while the setting is important to his stories in terms of plot and character, it wasn’t what interested me most. Instead I was drawn to the themes suggested by his title — love and power, and how desires for each can become intermixed and confused, so that it is not easy to say who is corrupt and who is corrupted. To go back to Barrett’s essay “I Want to be a Book,” it is not a love of language or books that inspires him to learn to read; he learns to read as a way of capturing his mother’s attention. Loves comes later, when the books have, in turn, cast their spell over him. But his love of books, once so simple and pure, lead him to think contrary thoughts and eventually to rebel against his mother, the very person he meant to bring closer. “Betrayals everywhere I turn,” Barrett writes, “even by books.” Betrayals drive many of Barrett’s stories, but he takes pains to illuminate the love beneath them. For this insight alone, Barrett is worth reading.