A Review of Pamela Power’s Things Unseen – Tochukwu Okafor

Publication Date: 2016
ISBN: 978-0-620-71843-1
Publisher: Clockwork Books.

Only a few novels possess the ability of trapping the reader in their world within their early pages. Power’s Things Unseen exists in such a hallowed team of novels.

Through brilliant twists and turns in dialogue, the characters and their complex worlds come alive. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the novel follows the story of a circle of friends — Rick, Emma, Craig, and Gay — who meet at a reunion and are quite nostalgic of old times. Craig is Emma’s ex-boyfriend, who leaves the British Police Force to become a private security consultant. Gay is “Gay by name and gay by nature,” and she is engaged to Sophie. Rick is Emma’s husband. In later chapters, the reader becomes familiar with Ross, Emma’s brother, and Lizzie, and Sarah.

The prologue tells of a murder. And as a well-executed thriller, the story unfolds, in nascent layers of suspense, as the identity of the murderer remains unknown. Emma’s mother is murdered in Emma’s home, and the gory image of the crime scene stays with Emma throughout the novel. Most of her nights are fraught with nightmares. While she grapples with the surreal truth of her mother being gone, Emma faces an unhappy, loveless marriage, and the possibility of a lifetime of childlessness. She finds succour in the hospitality of her friends. But her Catholic faith haunts her decision to leave a marriage of seventeen years. Power weaves a tale which is never close to being preachy, but draws greatly on the characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

The men in Things Unseen are total disappointments, save for Craig, who plays a redemptive role. They are aggressive, coming alive and tender in times of their pressing wants. Ross is “completely useless.” “He hardly ever saw his children, gorgeous twin girls.” “His life was a mess.” To Emma: “Rick never listened to her anyway.” Unlike the women who are resolute and independent, the men are failures who know not how to handle life problems. Feminism becomes a strong force in the novel, as Emma herself is a feminist.

Although generalisations often leap out of the pages of the book, the reader is forced to re-examine and create conversations around ideas mostly from Emma’s viewpoint. For instance, when Emma is in a church, planning her mother’s funeral, she remembers “the dreary Masses they had to attend every Wednesday morning.” Certainly, not all the Wednesday morning masses are dreary, if the characters live in a real world? Or, the idea that “men cheated”. “South African men, from the president down, seemed to think it was their God-given duty to spread their seed as widely as possible.”

Power, to her credit, creates human connections among the characters in her book, each person affecting the other in a significant way. Rick is seen as a selfish, unfeeling character who, to Emma, does not bother to ask her, before “helping” her hasten the autopsy so that Emma’s late mother can have a proper requiem mass. On a casual note, the reader will argue that Emma should be happy with Rick’s well-meaning contribution, but Emma’s reaction thrusts a selfish personality on him. Again, Rick’s offer to read the eulogy at the requiem mass passes for a “know-it-all attitude” which “irritated Emma.” And this interconnectedness, elements of cause and effect, makes Power’s Things Unseen a deeply engaging read.

One great mark of the book is its boldness in handling themes like feminism, marital rape, incest, and racism. The novel does not hide behind the usual run-of-the-mill psychological thrillers. The reader finds biting humour, doses of medical knowledge, and lots of dance and tea.

But the book can do away with superfluous sentences while retaining its potency. In a bid to pass a statement to the reader, a kind of unnecessary telling appears in between the lines. One good example is in the brief scene where Emma prepares to retrieve her mother’s body. She feels she bears the weight of the funeral errands alone and decides to take her brother along. Power goes on to write: “She didn’t she why she should suffer alone” — which can be felt without being announced to the reader.

Power has penned a compelling read for her readers. A page turner, the novel is not only contemporary but also an impressive version of its genre.

Reviewer’s Bio: Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor’s No Tokens story, “Some Days”, has been nominated for The 2017 Pushcart Prize. His story, “Leaving”, longlisted for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction, is forthcoming in an anthology, Migrations: New Short Stories from Africa. His Warscapes story, “Colour Lessons”, featured in Columbia Journal and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, has been shortlisted for the Problem House Press Short Story Prize (2016). His Open Road Review story, “Spirit”, featured in Litro Magazine, Juked, and forthcoming in Kweli Journal, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize. In 2014 he was awarded the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays. His work has also appeared in Aerodrome, The Bombay Review, Bakwa Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Creative Writing Workshop and the Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshop and a two-time recipient of Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015/2016). He is currently at work on his debut novel.

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