People Live Here by TJ Benson is a novel that will inspire conversation because of its novelty and its ambition, but it will also inspire a lot of divisive commentary because of its stylistic choices and less than stellar execution.
Like many readers, my first proper introduction to TJ Benson’s preoccupation with exploring the limits of the mind and stretching many otherwise intractable narrative rules was his debut novel, The Mad House. A speculative experiment that took a decade to write, The Mad House lured readers deep into the minds of its five primary characters—a family of four and the house that houses them when they are together and haunts them when they are apart. Its success positioned Benson as one of the few Nigerian writers whose work divests from the Western gaze.
In light of that, his second novel, People Live Here, sold to Masobe Books, was highly anticipated. I personally anticipated it because of how much Benson’s first novel deviates thematically and stylistically from his collection of short stories. I was curious to see where Benson would go next or if he would suffer the sophomore curse.
AN AMBITIOUS ENDEAVOUR
In People Live Here, we are introduced to Kanulia Madueke, the novel’s protagonist through a letter. It is the first of a series of letters Kanulia addresses to Jumaima her best friend, Martin her ten-year-old son and Tarfa Yasir, who is introduced much later in the novel. Through these letters, Kanulia chronicles a tumultuous period in her life, which is set in motion by her decision to have a child at 16 as a way to prove her love to Salim, a childhood crush. Ten years have passed since this life changing event, and Kanulia is about to make a life changing decision; leaving Nigeria to work as a triage nurse for a non-governmental organization in Yemen.
Her decision to leave triggers a series of traumatizing events that include a reprisal attack on the ‘Abattoir’, the makeshift hospital where she works and where Amira, a girl she meets and bonds with during her time as a nurse in Sana’a, is brutally killed. This event causes Kanulia to have a psychotic episode, and she is nursed back to health by Tarfa Yasir, a shadowy Yemeni native who helps out at the hospital and grows attached to Kanulia. A trip with Tarfa into the city to see the presidential palace ends in a terror attack, a bombing that Kanulia barely survives. The NGO, fearing for her life, ships her back to Nigeria with a sizable payoff as ‘compensation’ for the traumatic events she survives in Sana’a.
Kanulia returns to Nigeria and discovers that in the three months she has been away, her best friend Jumaima is terminally ill from HIV complications and can no longer take care of her son, Martin. This is a pivotal moment for Kanulia, who up until this point, was anchored by Jumaima’s consistent support. ‘I got tired of playing the game so I pulled everything down at once and it was my turn to scream. I didn’t even know when I started or when I stopped. My gorgeous woman, my beautiful yeye girl had become skin and bones,’ Kanulia expressed her worry over her friend’s deteriorating health.
She resumes responsibility for her son’s care and skirts with the idea of sex work, but is dissuaded when her first client turns out to be Ikenna, her colleague from the NGO in Yemen whose underhanded dealings led to the reprisal attack. She eventually asks to return to her work as a triage nurse, and is flown to Amsterdam, only to be returned to Daku, a fictional border town in Nigeria where the NGO is attempting to deal with the fallout from ethno-genocide. The NGO becomes embroiled in the conflict and Kanulia and her colleagues are mistaken for government spies and kidnapped. Kanulia escapes thanks to the sacrifice of her colleagues and reunites with her son Martin one final time.
People Live Here is an ambitious endeavour, tackling complex subjects like mental health, racism, parental neglect, friendships and split personalities. Benson’s ideas are ambitious, as is the choice to create a non-linear narrative that weaves between the past and the present, focusing on what Kanulia considers ‘important’, instead of the reader. We are forced as readers to actually pay attention to Kanulia and contemplate her interiority instead of leaning on plot to carry the story along. Benson also manages to replicate in Kanulia some of the unnerving internal dissonance that made Andre from his debut novel so compelling. She is at her most compelling when she shows startling self-awareness and honesty about her fallibility, her gullibility, her fear and her stubbornness. We get our first glimpses of this complexity when she first divulges her true feelings about Jumaima’s ‘fairytale’ relationship:
Back then, I sometimes worried if she recited this story for her own benefit, to convince herself of it, this was why I joined her to tell it so she wouldn’t feel alone. This Jide only sent her money, they talked twice a week. He didn’t’ want to tell her the specific state in America he lived in or the architectural firm where he worked.
There aren’t that many female anti-heroes in Nigerian literature and Kanulia will join that small canon purely on the back of how divisive her choices are. But she is one of the few shining moments in a project that confounds.
OVERALL, THE BOOK IS A MIXED BAG
The epistolary format that Benson chooses for this novel, allows him to take a lot of narrative liberties which ultimately harm the integrity of his story. Whole swathes of Kanulia’s life, which are relevant to the story, are never fully explored. We have no idea how Kanulia becomes a high fashion model and then a nurse, even though she leaves home at 17 as a divorcee with a one-year-old child, no savings and no support system. This is important, by the time the reader encounters Kanulia, she is qualified enough to pass the rigorous interviews and competence tests international medical non-profits use to hire for vital positions such as triage nurses, the catalyst event that sets the novel in motion.
Another major shortcoming of People Live Here is that it lacks the vivacity that seemed to suffuse every page in Benson’s debut novel. The writing style is partly responsible for this lack of vivacity—the writing is not cohesive and Kanulia’s voice is erratic in ways that contradict her backstory and suggested exposure level. Perhaps, an explanation for this is that Kanulia’s recall struggles under the weight of mental illness, this erraticism consistently jolts the reader out of the story and bleeds emotion out of scenes that should be introspective, self-reflective or devastating.
The result is detachment. The world in which the novel takes place is flat and unremarkable. Her descriptions of the places she visits in Yemen, Abuja, Amsterdam and Daku lack any vivacity. They are perfunctory, like passages from a geography textbook, meant to impart knowledge instead of wonder. We don’t feel what she feels in these spaces, we cannot suspend belief to fully inhabit these worlds, so it is difficult to care about the other characters in the novel who inhabit them.
The characters in People Live Here suffer a similar fate. Apart from Kanulia and Tarfa Yasir, whose real identity is the novel’s real twist, every other character is forgettable or interchangeable. Even Jumaima and Martin, the characters who feature most prominently in Kanulia’s life, have no interiority outside of their usefulness as a tool to justify Kanulia’s actions or explain her choices. In this novel, new characters are introduced as tools to propel the plot forward, offer exposition or provide conflict, before they are quickly discarded with very little care.
Because of this, it is hard to accept the novel’s conclusion, that it is ultimately an exploration of how mental illness manifests and shapes a person’s world view, because there are no other voices who can convincingly corroborate Kanulia’s recollection of events or offer us a different perspective on her life. The reader reaches the final chapters of People Live Here, in which a series of bewildering choices have been made, unsure of what to make of Kanulia’s travels and tragedies.
People Live Here is a novel that will inspire conversation, because of its novelty and its ambition, but it will also inspire a lot of divisive commentary because of its stylistic choices and less than stellar execution. Which side of the argument you pick will be determined by what you value in a novel⎈
People Live Here
266 pp. Masobe Books, June 2022
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