By Adefoyeke Ajao
“This one will make you suffer. Wait and see.” In Yewande Omotoso’s An Unusual Grief, an aunt’s warnings may have hinted at an unfavourable future, but nothing in this world can prepare any mother for the pain of losing a child, much less convince her that losing a child would give her the strength to confront her own insecurities.
Set in South Africa, the narrative of An Unusual Grief is told mostly from the perspective of Mojisola Owolabi, a mother who arrives in Johannesburg from Cape Town seeking information about her estranged daughter’s life and the circumstances surrounding her death. Through her contact with Zelda Petersen, her daughter’s landlady, Mojisola gains access to her daughter, Yinka’s flat, and this sets in motion a series of encounters and experiences that unfold over 234 pages.
However, to consider An Unusual Grief as just a story about a grieving mother seeking answers is to oversimplify the novel. Divided into four sections, this book presents a subtle and poignant commentary on some of the pressures that society places on women, especially the expectation that they should neglect or sacrifice their personal fulfilment and self-care for the sake of family – as Mojisola does when she has to give up her beloved Ife biomes to accompany Titus to the University of Cape Town or in having to endure working full-time with a difficult pregnancy just to avoid the judgment of a cynical boss. But as Mojisola would discover, there are no brownie points for complying with society’s expectations; and women, in particular, are scrutinised and criticised when their adult children – and husbands – fail to meet those expectations.
As Mojisola compiles her dossier on Yinka, she is put in a position to learn things that, had she discovered when Yinka were alive, would have most certainly increased their estrangement rather than brought them closer together. She realises that everyone – including her nearest and dearest – has flaws, and that their public personas were often facades used to cloak their insecurities.
Omotoso writes with clarity and a vivid imagery that evokes sympathy for Mojisola as well as outrage at the hand fate has dealt her. Initially, this appears to be a story driven by Mojisola’s heartbreak and her desperation to find her daughter’s drawings, but as the narrative shifts between the past and the present, her own personal portrait begins to emerge: In addition to being the mother of the recently departed Yinka, we meet the long-suffering wife of Titus Owolabi – an unfaithful, self-absorbed husband; the sheltered daughter of an overprotective mother, and the beloved niece of the mysterious Auntie Modupe. The reader also begins to grasp the various circumstances that have confined her to the mould she is now attempting to escape from. It then becomes quite fitting that the novel begins with her arrival in Johannesburg – despite her husband’s protests.
With Mojisola, Omotoso creates a relatable character who decides to take back her life after years of suppression and there’s no surprise that she finds release from any emotional or social restrictions with the kink-loving D-Man and the weed-smoking Zelda. She also holds up a mirror to a culture that is reluctant to discuss mental health or explore professional care, with Mojisola describing mental illness as “a disease of one, something to suffer and bear alone”. This is also reflected in the awkward, stilted conversations around the book’s tragic premise and Mojisola and Titus’ initial unwillingness to see a therapist.
But, while the novel skirts multiple themes, the reader is left with some unanswered questions, some of which can only be answered by Yinka. It can only be so, as Omotoso points out, because “the pieces of a life, even when put together, assembled, never amount to the life itself”. Through Mojisola, one realises that no matter how much we yearn for time to turn back or for things to turn out differently, we will always be forced to admit our helplessness and time’s inability to do anything but move forward. Ultimately, we learn that closure does not always entail resolution or a happy ending, but the ability to conjecture and adapt to new circumstances.
An Unusual Grief by Yewande Omotoso is published by Cassava Republic Press.