Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story. The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.
‘Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published by the Guardian in their recent series of Christmas ghost stories – though there isn’t necessarily just one ghost, or only one type of haunting.
The scene is a house in Nigeria, where the narrator Chinelo’s younger brother, Ofodile, is kept shut away in his room; the pink pills his mother gives him are just about the only thing that quietens Ofodile’s constant screaming. There is a sense in which Ofodile and his parents are ghosts who haunt each other: the mother and father don’t really know (or at least aren’t interested in) how to look after Ofodile; though he is aged six, his cries are the only way he can respond. Chinelo says: “With Ukalechi [the nanny], Ofodile had screamed and screamed, but with my mother he screamed and slept.” That’s about as much as can be hoped for under the status quo.
As the story begins, new neighbours – a doctor and his wife – come around to introduce themselves. It’s possible to read the woman of this couple as a supernatural entity; even if we don’t, though, the neighbours are a disruptive presence in the narrator’s household, who provide the impetus for the story’s decisive change. We might say that Adichie uses the structure, the movements, of a ghost story to portray this family’s moment of crisis.
Adichie has an eye for telling detail in the story. At the beginning, the attitude of Ofodile’s parents towards him is underlined by points such as “the foam-carpeted floor that caught his falls” (because his mother and father don’t catch him), or his mother’s “movements thick with duty” (but not with care) as she feeds him. At the end, it’s the little details that bring Chinelo closer to her brother: “His mouth was slack but he looked like me, the sparse eyebrows, the nose that flared.”
Chinelo decides that she is going to feed Ofodile now, in the dining room. The small detail of the location is important to her, become a symbol of the change: the boy who haunted his room will finally enter the heart of the home.