Odafe Atogun’s second novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, is a compelling story about an independent woman’s struggle against an oppressive, patriarchal regime. Set in a secluded, authoritarian Nigerian village, the novel provides a sympathetic portrayal of its vulnerable protagonist.
Ese, a widow, is informed of the news that by the law of the town, she must remarry within a certain period after her husband’s death or face losing custody of her son. The ensuing emotional, troubling dialogue between mother and son vividly portrays the strength of the maternal bond – as well as female strength and defiance – in triumphing over the wrath of Gods and the tyrannical Chief, who makes various attempts to manipulate Ese into marrying him.
The heart-felt first-person narrative is compelling, and the reader cannot help but be captivated by Ese’s resilience in her battle for her son and contempt towards the dictatorial chief and his advisors.
Atogun successfully portrays the corruption within this town which, though fictional, echoes recognisable themes in the contemporary world, as oppressive laws by patriarchal figures disregard women’s rights in many cultures.
The particularly evocative quote, “You do not marry because of love but because tradition requires you to be married,” establishes a framework of understanding the traditions that Ese, along with many other women, fight against. Thus, Ese becomes an identifiable heroic, feminist figure.
The novel perfectly captures the blinding, normalising effect of immoral values imposed upon a community and the manipulation of corrupt authority figures. The geographical isolation of the town, along with its disparity from democratic civilisation, offers a reflection on the loneliness felt by Ese as the whole town turns against her: all she has left are her values as a mother which fuel her fight for freedom.
Through honest, evocative language, Atogun successfully depicts the maternal trauma that so many women face living in authoritarian societies. The beauty of the novel, then, is the ability to instantly identify with Ese’s struggle: it puts forth narratives of female struggles against the patriarchy as well as the struggles of any marginalised community attempting to gain status and freedom against the corruption of powerful forces.
The novel offers a critique of conservative, backwards societies and demonstrates the power of individuals to defy outdated tradition. In the novel, the radical characters lead the struggle against oppressive authority, providing hope and a restoration of humanity.
The novel is a captivating read that renews the reader’s faith in humanity, presenting an optimistic belief that basic moral principles and sensitivity will ultimately triumph over corruption and oppression.
Wake Me When I’m Gone by Odafe Atogun
(Published by Canongate)
Photo Credit: Canongate