Although the year is far from over, I feel pleasantly inundated to name Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms as my read of the year. Abubakar has a particular poignancy with language, a loftiness essentially associated with poetry but one which he effectively utilises for his novel. This is a story of old tales just as much as it is a tale of modern and futuristic events. It is a narrative that fuses together the disparate stories of a 55-year-old widow Binta Zubairu and that of a 25-year-old weed dealer Reza. The resultant effect is a palpable story that grips the reader from the first page to the very last but not without some blemishes or disappointments of course.
For a debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms is too promising, too interesting. Abubakar deftly describes in minute details the issues affecting contemporary Nigerian society and the world at large. It is a story about morality, women, liberation, crime, individuals, alienation… you could almost argue that the novel is about anything and everything. It has a haunting tale of the affair between a “mother” and a “son”. Not a biological relationship but one that deconstructs itself so since Reza, the young man that Binta has a relationship with, constantly reminds her of her dead son almost Reza’s age mate.
Reza appears to fill a void in Binta’s life since traditional dictum denied her an opportunity to show affection for her first born son. On his part, Reza has a troublesome past since he was unable to connect with his mother in the only way a son would wish to connect with his mother. Reza’s mother chose an immoral path and in her quest to cushion him from the same ended up pushing him away into an abyss of self-hatred. Binta and Reza’s meeting appears to be choreographed by fate, a budding emotional connection nourished by the emptiness in life and watered by the “undesirable” sexual tension between the two. This tension is clear at first sight when Reza breaks into Binta’s house as a common thief. The mixed feelings ensuing out of their physical touch as Reza restrains Binta from screaming is of both pain and pleasure, excitement and fear.
Season of Crimson Blossoms has numerous memorable lines. One of these serves as the narrative hook of the novel. Indeed, the novel opens in the most unorthodox of ways: “Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.” Both comic and serious is the tone that the reader discovers in the opening pages of the text. Much later, the story is characterised by humour and tragedy with almost equal measure when Binta and Reza’s relationship blossoms into unfathomable greats and bursts into a death most memorable: Reza accidentally kills Binta’s only remaining son when the latter, Binta’s wealthy son, accosts him after realising that he has been having an affair with his mother.
I love the way the narrative explores Binta’s sexuality, explicitly demonstrating how tradition can at times gang up with religious beliefs to repress individual feelings, desires and aspirations. Binta is cast as a woman who despises the mundane ritualistic nature of marital sex. Her subtle abhorrence of the same is clearly captured by her pain and trauma whilst she resorts to counting as a way to numb her pain and disgust as her husband “beastly” does his thing without a second thought to her feelings and her view of their sex life. Binta’s desire for sexual liberation is frustrated by her chauvinistic husband who appears stuck in the traditions he has been socialised into:
“She wanted it to be different. She had always wanted it to be different. And so when he nudged her that night, instead of rolling on her back and throwing her legs apart, she rolled into him and reached for his groin. He instinctively moaned when she caressed his hardness and they both feared their first son, lying on a mattress would stir.
What the hell are you doing? The words, half-barked, half whispered, struck her like a blow. He pinned her down and, without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” (pg. 54)
In this excerpt, it is vividly clear that Binta and many other women of her ilk wish for a redefinition of the sexual act. She desires to be heard and not projected as a sexual object that is the butt of a man’s sexual passions and escapades. Indeed, Reza seems to fill the emptiness that widowhood has created in her heart and it is no wonder she appears to ironically come to life at the twilight of her life.
The text harshly castigates men especially concerning matters sexual. The narrative avers that all that men do is fuck and all that a woman must do is submit: “When he’s done, always put your legs up so his seed will run into your womb.” (pg. 51) It is a diminishing of the woman’s individuality, a reduction to a procreation tool. However, the men appear to enjoy the process oblivious of what devastation their sexual moves is wreaking on the women. Binta narrates that: “…when he was tossing and turning on the bed next to her, she knew he would nudge her with his knee and she would have to throw her legs open. He would lift her wrapper, spit into her crotch and mount her…She would count slowly under her breath, her eyes closed…And somewhere between sixty and seventy – always between sixty and seventy – he would grunt, empty himself and roll off her until he was ready to go again.” (pg. 53-54). It is not a mutual consenting sexual experience that anyone can relish but a lopsided one informed by ignorance, tradition and religious practices devoid of consideration for a woman’s sexual choices/preferences. In this context, Abubakar comes across as strongly disposed towards the liberation of women and their sexuality.
However, Season of Crimson Blossoms also explores the trauma and devastation of the civil wars in Nigeria. This is aptly captured in the traumatised soul of Binta’s granddaughter, Fa’iza, who cannot stand the sight of blood since it rekindles memories of her butchered family members. The cruel slaughter of her father appears permanently etched at the back of her mind: “…he raised his machete and brought it down. Bright, red blood, warm and sticky, splashed across Fa’iza’s face and dotted, in a fine spray, the shell-pink nightdress that her father had bought her” (pg. 84). In her troubling thoughts, the reader glimpses at the devastating effects of war when families are destroyed through death, separation or socio-economic after effects.
Binta’s strong personality enables her to express scorn at Mallam Haruna’s proposition to her. She appears able to dismantle the ideals of patriarchy, to make her on decisions, like where and when to meet Reza for their sexual escapades. On his part, Reza appears caught in the maze of crime and by extension political evils that threaten to destroy him. Although his conscience depicts a desire to change when he strives to please Binta, he also sadly comes across as unable to extricate himself from the web of an evil dance he has choreographed with the help of fate by his side.
Reza’s human side redeems him and endears him to the reader. Also, Binta’s fate as a lonely widow condemned to die lonely and without relishing the thrills of life accords her the sympathy of the reader. Both characters thereafter invite the empathetic eye of the reader as we discover how small happenings in our lives can devastatingly turn out for the best or the worst. Reza is the hero of San Siro, the hellhole of criminals but his criminality thaws out as he rediscovers his humanity in his relationship with Binta. On her part, Binta rediscovers the beauty of life and how troubling the human conscience can be when she develops feelings and gets entangled with Reza. Unfortunately, for Reza it is ironic that he has to die when he begins to discover redemption thereby according the reader an anticlimactic cathartic moment.
The catastrophe that is their lives is best captured and relived throughout the narrative. Although some bits read a bit off as Reza strives to become a better man or the fact that it reads weird for Binta to be romantically involved with a young man who only reminds her of her son, the story thrives as a strong reflection of our times, our fears, our desires, our frustrations and the general aura that is the world that we are living in. Season of Crimson Blossoms gruesomely reminds us that we all need to blossom in one way or the other, to punctuate life with different scents: provide an opportune aperture through which we can conceive of such possibilities through which we can blossom.