“Maybe fathers could explain sons?” wonders Achike, an actor in his late 30s with a film career on the ascendant yet a nagging sense of incompleteness. His childhood friend Ekene experiences manhood as a burden: “Why do I have to be this hard, painful thing? … Why can’t I be somebody’s boy?” Okechukwu Nzelu’s second novel, Here Again Now, begins with these two gay British-Nigerian men, then traces back to their fathers and their fathers before them, as well as a father figure, uncle and stepdad – variously disciplinarian, drunk, unavailable, absent, abusive and repressed. It’s a story made from broken family tree branches.
Achike has recently travelled to Nigeria to play dual roles in a movie set across two lifetimes. The script, titled Here Again Now, is based on an Igbo belief system in which humans are reincarnated into the same family line – in other words, set up for second chances. Having returned to south London, Achike lets both his alcoholic father Chibuike and jobless Ekene move in with him. Achike and Ekene have the same “long, clever fingers”, and were the only boys with Igbo names in their class in Manchester. But Achike can now afford a flat, expensive cologne and therapy sessions, whereas Ekene has abandoned his own dreams of acting and is struggling to get work as a teacher. Ekene can be blithe to the edge of cruelty. Achike is more disciplined, gallant, painfully earnest, prone to migraines.
As much brothers as lovers, their mutual desire has gone mostly unconsummated. As Chibuike observes: “When Ekene was around, Achike was always something short of waiting.” The pair’s protracted conversations about their relationship status swerve into talk of their ambivalence towards both England and Nigeria. “They hate us there,” Ekene says of the latter, though both long to forge a connection to the land and its history. Meanwhile, Chibuike disapproves of the focus on “primitive” African myth in the film poised to make his son a star.
The novel goes on to slip between time periods in a worthwhile exploration of diaspora and Black gay masculinity. But by the time the reader encounters Achike’s comment that being in therapy “feels like hard work”, the same impression hovers around the book’s structure and style. Exposition can be workmanlike, dialogue laboured, the omniscient narration overcooked. Each character so actively processes their own masculinity they’re less believable as individuals than as overlapping strands of one psyche – “more ideas than men”, as it’s put towards the end.
From its title, Here Again Now is clearly about recurrence, but Nzelu’s use of repetition can be jarring. Sentences are recycled over and again. Some phrases make abrupt U-turns (“Achike has noticed this, too, without noticing”). At its best, the use of such techniques can achieve propulsiveness. A similar narrative device can be found in the repetitive, expository vocal scores used in contemporary Nigerian cinema, a style that the musicologist Emaeyak Peter Sylvanus has called “prefiguring”. Take Nzelu’s description of gentrified Peckham: “A few streets away in one direction, people were selling plantain. A few streets away in another direction, people were selling plantain at twice the price.” But the constant verbal rehashing threatens to send the novel in circles. When concepts such as “Could there only be distance and sex between men?” come up some half a dozen times, it seems that subtext has overwhelmed storytelling.
Love is mentioned overtly and often, treated as an absolute that slips in and out of grasp, what the philosopher Alain Badiou has called a “tenacious adventure”. Badiou wrote: “Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” In Here Again Now, Nzelu brings verve and radiant detail while still mastering the skills to construct a high-stakes obstacle course.