It’s a unique narrative device. The chi is wise and all-knowing, and has lived through many eras inside many bodies, which gives it the ability to connect the historical past with the setbacks in Chinonso’s life. The chi remembers the era of the Aro slave raiders; it remembers the horrors of the Biafran War. These dips into history are quite wonderful — they anchor the story within a broader cultural context, marking this tragedy as one of many in the grand and inevitable flow of time.
But there is also a risk to this narrative strategy. Establishing intimacy between a reader and a character can already be a delicate dance, and in this case the use of the chi clouds that relationship by creating an enormous psychic distance, limiting any deep understanding of Chinonso beyond the chi’s analysis. Though the chi can negotiate with the gods on Chinonso’s behalf, it can’t interfere in his daily actions, and so lacks all immediate power of influence. Chinonso is therefore left the victim of his impulses. His emotions can sometimes be hard to connect with when filtered through the distant lens of the chi. This is a story, then, in which the events take place behind a veil, and the intensity of passion is dimmed.
An Odysseus-Penelope paradigm is established between the lovers: Chinonso’s delayed journey back to his beloved; Ndali’s interminable wait for his return. And yet, in many ways, the novel seems to reject its epic trappings. Despite the frame of the chi pleading Chinonso’s case to the higher gods, and despite the novel’s spanning many landscapes — from rural Nigeria to Lagos, from the churches of Turkey’s countryside to its tangled urban streets — its fixation remains the repressed, claustrophobic, paranoid psyche of its broken narrator.
Ultimately, the novel’s tension rests on the clash between Ndali’s modern, newly awakened sense of agency over her romantic choices, and Chinonso’s persistently naïve, unchanged ideas of romantic ownership. Sadly, it’s his vision that will win out.
The novel comes alive in those moments when it captures the alienation of foreigners in strange lands. Even a simple meal can cause astonishment: In Cyprus “the people placed a premium on the need for things to be eaten in their raw states, once they had been washed. Onions? Yes, simply cut them up and add them to your food. … Cooking is a time-wasting experience.” When Chinonso enters a Turkish police station, he’s stunned at the orderliness; likewise, the silence of a city bus unnerves him. He is shocked to be told that he can’t drink alcohol in a taxi. A group of boys mistakes him for a famous soccer player, presumably because of his skin color.
Obioma is especially good at exposing such instances of casual racism. In a city park, Chinonso sits down beside a Turkish couple on a bench, and they swiftly get up and leave. There is a striking scene in which Chinonso and a friend are approached by two Turkish girls asking to touch their Afros. Later, when Chinonso sees a very dark-skinned Nigerian man who has become a taunted public spectacle, he shudders at the idea of becoming like him.
The “orchestra of minorities” refers to the crying of birds mourning the slaughtered among them. It extends, symbolically, to the broader human community of the poor, the dispirited, the silenced, the plundered — those whose spirits have been savaged, those who have been stripped of all dignity, those who risk everything or make impossible journeys to better their lives. It’s a story as old as the epic, but, sadly, an all too modern one.