REVIEW: A Kind of Madness by Uche Okonkwo

Reviewed by Kyle Murphy

A Kind of Madness, Uche Okonkwo’s debut short story collection, poses a question on its back cover: “Why is it that the people and places we hold closest are so often the ones that drive us to madness?” In ten brilliantly crafted page-turners set in Nigeria, Okonkwo provides no direct answers to this question, instead illustrating what this particular madness is: a silent suffering that plagues the minds of the stories’ respective protagonists. Okonkwo’s intriguing exploration interrogates internalized emotion to show how this suffering manifests in madness; for it is the apprehension about voicing concern that drives and perpetuates the main characters’ inner conflict.

Okonkwo powerfully utilizes fear as an important aspect of character development. “Eden” centers on a pair of young siblings, Ifechi and Madu, who watch their father’s collection of pornographic videotapes and question whether they’re still innocent. The children’s anxiety over their abusive dad finding out is an ordinary fear, but Okonkwo goes deeper by focusing on their private worries. Ifechi, dreading that Madu would be displeased with her, watches the videos with him even though she is disturbed. Madu considers telling Ifechi about his sexual dreams, but fears further scarring her. As Ifechi and Madu grow more apprehensive, their communication breakdown ultimately leads the children into their own individual explorations of sexuality, leading them, separately, to similar results. Ifechi wonders if “her mother’s feet ever disappeared into the mouth of her father” and worries if her dad “knew what she was thinking, what she and Madu had done.” Meanwhile, Madu “noticed that it felt good touching himself” but decides to place “his hands under his pillow, squeezing his eyes shut as he murmured Hail Marys.” Ifechi and Madu’s continual exposure to sexuality, combined with a stigma that bars them from revealing themselves to each other, inflames their shared madness.

Okonkwo also explores how internal madness can arise from conflicts around familial duty. In “Nwunye Belgium,” a young woman named Udoka is forced by her mother, Agatha, into betrothal to a doctor who lives in the titular country. The backstory provides an introduction to this particular madness, born of Agatha’s shame: “As a teenager, Udoka witnessed creditors accost her mother at home and in public.” Money woes are the throughline between mother and daughter—Agatha has suffered for not having enough, while Udoka allows herself to be in a loveless engagement to ease financial suffering. Udoka is adept at ignoring her own feelings. Though she does not express any desire to marry the doctor, she rationalizes him as “the better choice” for a suitor compared to Enyinna, a market trader and her former fiancé. Udoka surrenders her own agency, allowing her mother to assess who is worthy of providing them with financial stability. When Udoka attempts to defend Enyinna’s ability to provide, Agatha counters, “His shop is doing okay,” the critique emphasized by one of Okonkwo’s few uses of italics. Udoka’s concern for Agatha is admirable, yet it prevents her from figuring out what she wants for herself. This worry, paired with the consuming desire to please Agatha, allows her suffering to become a quiet madness.

In “Long Hair,” the story of an unnamed young girl who envies her schoolmate Jennifer, jealousy is the mechanism leading to silent suffering. Jennifer is popular because of her hair, and the protagonist recurringly describes the object of her envy with terms such as “light-skinned” and “mixed-race.” Like “Nwunye Belgium,” this story is not an overt commentary on a particular issue, and yet race and colorism are centered to exhibit how they are a form of madness, such as when the protagonist notes, “People asked her all the time, Jennifer, are you mixed?” Okonkwo gives race a twofold purpose here. First, the main character internalizes her madness, experiencing a sense of inferiority regarding her own skin color. This is perceptible through her wish “to pinch their lips shut” when people referred to “the oyibo Jennifer.” Race also incites action, such as when a comment the main character utters causes a peer to note how “all demon girls were pretty, with light skin… like Jennifer’s.” This affects the protagonist’s classmates opinion of Jennifer, which devolves from admiration to fearfulness. Hair is the conduit for the protagonist’s antipathy for Jennifer, but race is undeniably a second one, as it is something that gives Jennifer more of the attention that the main character craves. The latter’s inability to talk about and examine the roots of her jealousy perpetuates her suffering.

In “Shadow,” Okonkwo explores different types of grief and loss through the lens of a child’s relationship with his aunt. The story follows a young boy, Buchi, who treasures his Aunt Ifueko and secretly hopes she will consider him as “her child” instead of as a distant nephew. Buchi’s longing is not what triggers his madness; it is, rather, Ifueko’s unwitting rejection when he asks to be with her “in America.” This, along with news of Ifueko’s pregnancy, sends Buchi into a state of silent suffering where he copes by feigning disinterest. But Buchi does not wallow in his madness for long, as Ifueko endures her own suffering: the pain of miscarriage. In enduring their own separate, individual feelings of loss, Ifueko and Buchi both succumb to the madness of deep sorrow. Buchi’s grief stems from Ifueko’s inability to reciprocate his feelings, while Ifueko is mourning the loss of her child. The miscarriage serves to fuel Buchi’s madness, reigniting the hope that Ifueko would “take him back to America with her” and “realize that he was better than a million babies.” Buchi’s continual failure to convey the intense love he has toward Ifueko is the throughline of the story, and his perspective dominates the narrative. Though Ifueko’s miscarriage is devastating, Okonkwo, in choosing Buchi’s madness as the basis of the story, focuses instead on the devastation and loss that arise from being disappointed by a loved one.

Okonkwo is not merely interested in madness, but in exploring its multiple catalysts. What keeps these ten stories engaging is following along as Okonkwo reveals why the protagonists allow themselves to endlessly endure this madness rather than attempt to escape it. A Kind of Madness is an enriching read that explores how the seeds of trauma have a chance to take root when things are left unspoken.

Kyle Murphy is a screenwriter and third-generation Irish Californian who has lived in the Inland Empire all of his life. He is a second-generation college graduate, holding three associate’s degrees from Crafton Hills College and a bachelor’s degree in English from University of California, Riverside. He is currently a student in UC Riverside’s Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing. He is a Christian and loves watching films and television; his earliest memories of both were viewing The Incredibles and JAG.