Tartarus Press, 2023
When I began reading Caged Ocean Dub in the first section of the book labeled "Hungers," I got through "Akara Oyinbo," thinking "wow, that's pretty macabre," then it was "Busola Orange Juice," which was strange but awesome at the same time. Next up was the hallucinatory "Oases," which moved into dark and haunting territory, but it was when I got to "Eating Kaolin" that Falowo's writing just exploded and took my mind along with it. I didn't realize it at the time, but I can say now that it was that particular story that tuned me into the author's "extraordinary imagination" (as noted in the dustjacket blurb) and provided the first insights into the sheer genius in storytelling Falowo has to offer throughout the remainder of Caged Ocean Dub. I won't go into particulars about that one, but it is so vibrantly and brilliantly alive with movement and color, shifting with ease between worlds, honoring the strength of women and the power of the land while also tackling the ugliness and horrors of colonization. The final story in that section of the book is "October in Eran Riro," which is straight-up dark horror with a powerful occult vibe, building the unease right up to the last few words.
One of the best stories in section two, "Ghosts," is "Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa," in which a "strikingly beautiful" woman and model buys a mirror from a street vendor. It is "the most perfect mirror Ngozi had ever set eyes on," and while I just knew that something strange was going to happen, never in a million years would I have expected the direction taken by the author here. I also loved "Kikelomo Ultrasheen," where a young girl, Kikelomo, discovers her destiny at age sixteen in a black moon that hums. When she reveals this phenomenon to her mother, she is warned that she has "been seen" and that, according to her mom, "Tales of those 'seen' by irunmole or orisha never end well." Evidently she's been noticed by Onidiri, "some of the very first people to touch understand and weave hair on this our land," who had discovered "true power in the craft" and had the ability to "shape the workings of the mind by simply touching the head."
|from Intercontinental News
The final section of this book is "Heralds," and these stories are given over to an entirely different style, moving into the realm of science fiction, largely futuristic in nature. "What Not to Do When Spelunking in Ananmbra" left me with goosebumps and cold chills crawling up my spine. A "rogue speleogist" discovers a "new cave system" that tells the future in "terrifying etchings that glowed as if alive," also offering "ancient impressions of alien life" that will have "an impact on our futures." And that they do, just not in the way originally he predicted. As this story winds down, the realities of the future become outright frightening. Also frightening but absolutely gorgeous in the telling is the novella-length "Convergence in Chorus Architecture", a sort of Nigerian weird combined with speculative fiction approach complete with world building which truly begins with a lightning strike. When "slow lightning touch[es] the heads of Akanbi and Gbemisola" with "small bright hands" while they are in the water, they are brought back to their village where it is determined that they are "dreaming vivid," having been "called on to see." A particular potion is brewed that allows the rest of the community to follow the lightning victims into their "shared dream." What happens afterward I won't say, but the story as a whole incorporates shamanistic elements along with strong mythological ties, magic and the power of dreams that culminate in a spectacular and breathtaking finish.
In an interview I found after finishing this collection, the author notes that "over a foundation of mundane realism" they "like to play with multi-tonality and tropes, to blend and blur." What they do not say specifically but is readily discoverable in Caged Ocean Dub from the get-go is that that "mundane realism" includes a relationship with what we might consider "supernatural" forces/beings who share the human world -- all a matter of course for the people in these stories. Another item worth mentioning is that each and every story incorporates human issues that are very much locally based, yet surprisingly universal at the same time. The dustjacket blurb quotes Falowo as saying about these tales that they
"were mostly inspired by real events and/or emotional states, and were also fuelled by my love of indigenous cosmologies and pop culture symbolism. They were written in various caged spaces, where the pulse and ambient sounds of the world outside became, after a while, like arrhythmic waves crashing on the shores of my listening."
Tartarus has simply outdone itself with this collection and I'm just over the moon that they've chosen to highlight the work of this Nigerian author, which is, simply stated, superlative. Falowo's writing meshes together surrealism, the speculative, the weird and the strange as well as folklore, mythology and tradition, all of which put together mark something new and exciting on the literary weird scene, although to try to pigeonhole this book into the "weird" category simply doesn't do it justice. It is Falowo's stunning writing that impressed me the most, pushing his work so deeply into the literary zone to the point where readers who wouldn't normally dabble in the weird or in darkness in general would soon be rejoicing at the beauty and power found in the artistry of the author's prose.
Very times infinity highly recommended.