REVIEW: “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh

Review of Nuzo Onoh, “The Unclean”, in Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, ed., Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa and the African Diaspora, (Aurelia Leo, 2020) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Death, torture, physical and verbal abuse, rape, death of a child.

Onoh’s story begins at the end: Desdemona, the narrator, is keeping watch over her dead husband’s body for three days beneath the great Iroko tree, the Tree of Truth that is “the righteous judge and jury that condemns and sentences with ruthless efficiency”. In the morning, Desee will find out what judgement the tree has in store for her; but before that, we first learn of her history and how she came to be tried and condemned in this way.

Desee’s story starts out remarkably prosaically (despite her literary name!) — growing up in the 1950s, eldest daughter in a family that prizes sons of above, educated beyond necessity, and sold in marriage to a man twice her age.

The remainder of the story then alternates between her story now and her story up to now, as Onoh gradually feeds us bits so that we can piece together what her crime was and how she came to commit it.

Dark, intense, gruesome, not at all pleasant, and masterfully put together.

(First published in Unhallowed Graves, 2015.)

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