“They pulled him out when they came to a halt. Samuel immediately began to scream for help. He was silenced by their beatings. They took turns in kicking and punching him. They taunted him, mocked him and told him his screams would never be heard as they were in a deserted area. He was numb and in agony, when Joshua and his friends decided to let him be; they had passed the warning to stay off Tania clearly.
Joshua thought otherwise though, as he watched Samuel cry and grunt in pain where he lay on the ground, wounded and bleeding. Something snapped in Joshua, and his friends watched in shock as he entered into his car, fired up his engine and drove right over Samuel still lying on the ground. Samuel, in an attempt to flee angled directly beneath the tires of the driver’s sides, but the tires of the vehicle went over his head…”
We’ve seen the movies about the awkward school kids who turn on bullies and become the monsters they once hated, and we have read news reports about troubled teenagers who stormed into schools with semi-automatic rifles, but not much literature has gone into trying to see things from their perspective. They probably have their own stories to tell, a reason why their thought processes run differently, an apparent rationale for all the madness.
Lucy Chiamaka Okwuma’s debut novel, “Neglected”, tells the story of Stephanie Williams, a sixteen-year-old who is the last child and only daughter of her parents. Her father and mother are overly expressive about their attachment to each other, and they try to see to the welfare of their children, but Stephanie feels starved of affection and assumes that they do not love her enough, a view which intensifies after she accidentally overhears her mother saying that her birth was unplanned. She is determined to have their attention, and decides to resort to getting it by any means possible, from indulging in teenage romance to cutting herself with razor blades.
At the other end of town there is Joshua Benson, an over-pampered son of rich parents who is known for his uncontrollable temper, and who has only escaped conviction for murder because of his family’s influence. By a twist of fate, he and Stephanie cross paths, and a volcano pales in comparison to what erupts next.
The novel, set in urban contemporary Nigeria, dwells on a number of themes, including family ties, mental health (with emphasis on disorders and self-harm), modern parenting, sex education and teenage infatuation. There is also enough room in the pages to shed light on marital infidelity, emotional toxicity, domestic violence, systematic corruption, and the dynamics of friendship.
The book runs along with a third-person style of narration, and while it starts slowly, it picks up in pace, before the tempo drops again and then it hops to a final conclusion. The stream of consciousness narrative finds its way into the storytelling at certain portions of the book, and while the author is guilty of inserting a few clichés (such as the convoluted weaving of events that lead to Joshua’s bumping into Stephanie), the plot is largely plausible, and even where the paragraphs drag on for too long, the unfolding of events make for real anticipating. There is also significant emphasis on character development, as each individual appears to have a decent back story, though the excessive use of flashbacks make for a distracting read sometimes.
“They both stood at the top of the stairs; Rachel lost her balance as she was pushed by Stephanie, and she stumbled backwards down the stairs. It happened suddenly, but a shocked Rachel felt the moment she tumbled, the world spinning and air knocking out of her lungs as her head slammed against the stairs. In a haze, Rachel tried to register all she could see. She could hear a voice as she struggled to breathe, and she felt as if her body had been torn into pieces as she lay at the foot of the staircase…”
It is also interesting to see how Okwuma navigates the trickier aspects of the book, such as the medical diagnoses and the intricacies of criminal litigation: while the flow is not perfect, the transition of events points to good research and a decent command of terminologies. The setting is also a tad elitist, which has the potential of amplifying the theories which suggest that only the rich care about mental illnesses, but there is sufficient nuance, and the perspectives of the characters help for the palpability of emotion. The narration is graphic in many ways, and the story has its very tragic moments, however these add up to an ultimately valuable and thematically relevant body of work.
“Neglected” is a novel that will be remembered for its content, if not its penmanship, and considering the fact that there are not too many fictional books that address the subject of mental health, this book is as ambitious as it is timely. Okwuma would hopefully grow into becoming a better writer, but she can at least pat herself on the back for serving up this potentially important literary offering.