Image of Dazzling: A Novel
Release Date: 
December 5, 2023
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by: 

“Quite simply it is dazzling.”

There are times when the title of a book, e.g. Dictionary, best describes its content. That is the case with Chikodili Emelumadu’s, Dazzling. Everything about it is dazzling: the story, the prose, the characters, the setting. With Dazzling, Emelumadu has taken a place among the many wonderful writers that have come out of Nigeria since the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. More specifically, it is akin to Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning, The Famished Road.

Two young girls and the evolution of their relationships at boarding school are at the center of the story. Each has lost her father and looking for a way to get him back. Ozoemena’s father has left to search for his brother, and no one seems to know where her father is. Treasure's father is dead; Treasure and her mother have fallen onto hard times; and Treasure is determined to find a way to bring her father back to life.

Although this is primarily Ozoemena’s story, Treasure plays a significant role in it. Also, central to the story are spirits, and, in Ozoemena’s case, it is the Leopard that is the focal point of her life as she moves from childhood to puberty and beyond. Her growth and development will not be typical of those of her friends and classmates.

Ozoemena’s father is in the line of descent of The Leopard, and, in her generation, she has been chosen to “eat” the Leopard. It is her grandmother, M’ma, who understands the role Ozoemena is to play and takes her to Oruke, an elderly priest at the shrine of the goddess of the village. He greets her as “the daughter of leopards.” As Oruke explains the history of her family to Ozoemena, she is overwhelmed as she learns all of what is expected of her.

She is hesitant to agree and is especially troubled when Oruke tells her, “You will also have to die.” M’ma tries to reassure Ozoemena by asking her, “Do you imagine you will have just one life? As leopard you will have many. What is one small death compared to all the lives you will live?”

What follows is the story of life at a boarding school, where Ozoemena will slowly evolve from fear to understanding of her leopard and from reluctance to acceptance of her role. It is, in many ways, a wild ride. It is full of encounters with spirits, like the Bone Woman and the Leopard, woven into the midst of a life as a young girl with her friends and enemies at her school.

The leopard will be a disruptive and, at times, a brutal force in her life. When Ozoemena finally accepts her chi or fate and finds her tether, she takes control of the leopard and command of the spirits.

Running in parallel to this story is that of Treasure or Dazzling, whose quest to bring her father back to life centers on her dealings with a spirit who makes many demands on her. She refuses to become the spirit’s wife, and he then tells her to bring three young girls to him so that he can give them to his spirit friends to serve as wives. If a spirit is to come back to life, they must be reborn through a woman.

This is the barebones structure of the story that is considerably more complex than this. The immediate and extended families of the two girls and the students and faculty at the school, offer a cast of remarkable characters. Running through the novel are comments upon and portraits of life in this culture, including the elements of class and status.

The most dazzling aspects of the story involve the spirits, the Bone Woman and, of course, the Leopard. Scenes involving them have a magical quality, many of which are frightening and powerful. Nearly all of these episodes are mind-bending, mysterious, and, at times, terrifying.

In one scene, Ozoemena is chasing after her blouse that has been drying on a clothesline when a strong wind picks it up, and it sails off. Ozoemena gives chase. It seems to be taunting her. After several attempts to catch the blouse, she stops:

“The blood in her body pumps with a force that almost throws her face-down on the ground. She plants her feet. She cannot bring herself to yield to the power pulling her forwards. Nor can she go back—to where? All she desires is to get out, however she came to be in this place.”

In another example, Ozoemena is being bullied by two brothers at the school. Suddenly she lets out a high piercing scream. The boys back away. “The world through her eyes tilted, shifted. She was aware of a sudden darkening, a hand passed over the sun. Rain, coming to add to the mess on her head, she thought, but looking up, it was a different sky entirely, big and violet, lit up with stars as far as the eye could see.”

To read Dazzling is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It also takes you inside many aspects of the Igbo culture and belief systems that are common to many of more than 300 Nigerian ethnic or tribal societies.

Quite simply it is dazzling.