During the heat of the dry season a storm is brewing. The air is thick, the skies dark and streaked with lightning. Thunder, still distant, is advancing, the prelude of a night that will threaten to open wounds and leave scars, on the parched ground, and in the lives of four women. Twilight of Torment: Melancholy, the first part of a two-volume novel by Cameroonian writer Léonora Miano, unfolds over the course of this one turbulent night and the day that follows. Directed to one man who is not present, the second person narrative is passed, like a torch from his mother to his ex-girlfriend to his fiancé and finally his sister, as each woman speaks to her individual circumstances, history with him and personal dreams for the future. Together their voices weave a complex tale which explores femininity, sexuality and self-identity in contemporary African society, against a backdrop in which the legacy of colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, ancestry, class, family dynamics and domestic violence intersect.
Set in Cameroon, exact place names are never used in this novel, affording a certain ambiguity that implies that it could easily be set in a number of sub-Saharan nations. What applies in the country, applies throughout the “Continent.” By contrast, the “North” refers to France, Paris in particular, but again reflects the double role Western countries play as an educational destination for those who wish to improve their prospects and as a point of origin for the descendants of the African forced dislocation who seek connection with a cultural and spiritual homeland. Mythologies drive movement in both direction. The use of such ambiguous language heightens this reality.
The novel opens with Madame, hotelier and mistress of a large family dwelling in a well-to-do neighbourhood in a coastal city. Her lonely soliloquy begins with a impassioned elegy for the loss of culture and tradition that occurred during the years of colonial control and its impact on women and female society. But it is also apparent that she was aware of the rules of the game that she needed to play if she wanted to achieve her goals. Her ambition was not money—she brought wealth into her marriage—but a level of respect no wealth could buy. She talks of the wound she carries early on, but otherwise addresses her son in guarded terms, she wants to explain herself but refuses to accept that her intentions were nothing but the best:
I can name the thorn that, lodged in me since an early age, is my torture and my compass. My true identity. I know the reasons that drive me and never delude myself in this regard. Let me be clear: everything proceeds from a crack but that does not mean I’m wrong. Our coastal plain, our country, have their ways. Their understanding of things. I make do. It took finesse, skill, and tact to hug the edge of this fissure without falling, and I only slipped once or twice.
Madame’s most valued possession, it becomes clear, is respect. Status matters. So she pursues a husband from a noble line, Amos Mususedi, who bears an patronym of import that she can pass on to her children. However, he also comes from a line of men known for their violent tendencies and the marriage she ultimately submits to is loveless and brutal. She is aware that her son resents her for not leaving, so much so that he is determined to put an to end his patrilineal bloodline. But he is not opposed to allowing the name to carry on.
When her son returns from the North with a woman he intends to marry and the child he wants to adopt, Madame is beside herself. Pride and respect matter above all and now this is the second lineageless woman he has brought home. His first girlfriend was less than ideal, but now, although she is willing to accept an adopted grandson knowing a biological heir is unlikely, young Kabral’s mother is an entirely unsuitable daughter-in-law and, after all, it seems like the proposed marriage is a sham. Madame will not allow it to happen, even if she has to turn to occult connections to ensure her desired outcome is realized. The strange storm brewing gives her pause…
As Amandla, the former girlfriend, picks up the narrative, we learn more about the absent man, her one great impossible love. A native of French Guiana, Amandla met him in the North where she was involved in political pro-African causes. Now resettled on the Continent she is engaged in a spiritual journey of self-discovery through deeper involvement with fellow Kemites, followers of an Egyptian neo-paganism. Her story calls attention to the longing to belong to an idealized ancient tradition and the challenges of finding acceptance in a world that views her as an outsider:
Rumors were running around town about a White Woman who’d rented a carabote house in a populated neighborhood of the district. A White. A Northerner in the minds of the people here. It’s interesting that the terms Black and White are unrelated to race in these parts. They refer to culture. To lifestyle. Racial thinking does not belong to original Kemite conceptions. Racism concerns us only because we deal with it. We’re not the ones who fractured the unity of humankind. We’re not the ones who hierarchized people only to recant when it was no longer useful. We’re not the only ones who are now duty bound to care for their souls. To cleanse their interiors. To make the inside shine until its reflected on the outside. May each know and accomplish his or her duty.
Midway through the book, at the height of the storm, a pivotal act of violence occurs that will bring the four women together, directly or indirectly and shift the balance of the narrative. Here we join Ixora, the questionable would-be fiancé and mother of Kabral as she lies, beaten immobile, on the muddy side of a road with the rain hammering her bruised body. Her spirit, however, is indefatigable. The narrative now takes a near stream of consciousness form, rolling out in breathless, single-sentence paragraphs. The woman so openly disparaged by Madame is revealed anew as she expands our understanding of the troubled man who has just left her for dead and the complicated and surprising circumstances that unite and differentiate the women who have come into his orbit.
Finally Tiki, the sister, takes over. No longer living on the Continent, she addresses her brother, Big Bro, with a directness, affection and understanding that belongs to her alone. Although he has disappeared into the night after attacking Ixora, she anticipates a call from her brother at some point and is preparing to fill him in on what she has learned about the fallout from what has occurred back home. But she also takes time to explain her rebellious youth, her need to fill in some of the pieces of her parents’ lives that have remained mysterious, and the strange process of self-discovery, through questions of sex and gender, that have led her to carve out an independent and idiosyncratic life in the North. Her account, played out against a soundtrack from the 1980s, comes full circle, painting a complex portrait of the lasting impact of life in a dysfunctional family, in a society still struggling to come to terms with its own legacy of complicated alliances and prejudices. But the novel closes waiting for the call which has not yet come. It is to Tiki’s brother’s story, from his perspective, that the companion volume, Heritage, will turn.
I plan to read that soon.
Twilight of Torment: Melancholy is an impressive novel that brings to the forefront the many diverse and conflicting elements that impact and shape the lives of African and African origin individuals in our modern world. It is an undeniably feminine novel, yet one which underlines the damage that patriarchal structures enact on both women and men. And, although I am not typically a fan of multi-voice narratives, this one is very well executed. A central story line is carried through the stormy night and the day that follows; events that occur and information revealed shifts the dynamics between the characters. Each woman, with her own torments of personal and historical origin, brings a distinct voice, complicated life experience and a surprising angle to this ensemble piece. By the time night falls again, Melancholy closes with promise and hope, but leaves many unanswered questions and uncertain outcomes.
Twilight of Torment: Melancholy by Léonora Miano is translated from the French by Gila Walker and published by Seagull Books.