Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh review – when a clinch is a crime

<span>Chukwuebuka Ibeh: ‘a blend of the particular and the universal’.</span><span>Photograph: Erin Lewis</span>
Chukwuebuka Ibeh: ‘a blend of the particular and the universal’.Photograph: Erin Lewis

Born in 2000 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chukwuebuka Ibeh is the product of a well-deserved American MFA studentship, the ultimate finishing school for new authors who want to attain – as Ibeh does with this first novel – a blend of the particular and the universal, glossing traditional storytelling with a literary finesse that adds style without scaring the horses.

Blessings is the poignant tale of a talented and sensitive Nigerian boy, Obiefuna, who is caught by his conservative father in a clinch with another young man. Obiefuna is sent to get straightened out in a strict Christian boarding school, where “he learned to stay out of the way of seniors: never look them in the eye, cross to the other path when they were sighted, never even smile”. First love, first enmity and first rivalry follow, along with the first steps towards a sense of identity.

Obiefuna’s mother, Uzoamaka, is caught between caution and maternal support

What marks Blessings out is the political underpinning of the story. Homosexuality is not just misunderstood, feared or loathed – it is criminalised, and this element of state repression adds a pressing risk. Everything Obiefuna does, feels and wants is marked by the government as forbidden, and it’s moving to read about his struggles as his horizons narrow and loneliness sets in. Wistfully watching footage of an American man proposing to his partner after gay marriage is legalised, one of Obiefuna’s friends asks: “‘When will we get this?’… a look of animated longing in her eyes.”

Another layer of emotion is added through the perspective of Obiefuna’s mother, Uzoamaka, who is caught between caution and maternal support, womanly ambition and the price of marriage to a dogmatic man. Comforting her son against her husband’s anger, “she held his head to her breast – his temperature was rising – and felt her blood rise to her head from rage.”

An emotive, affecting debut.

Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply