PrintE-mail Written by Ian White

When Obele’s disabled brother Kene mysteriously disappears, Obele’s inner voice – her ‘Mother Voice’ – tells her what really happened: Kene was taken to a Witchdoctor and ritually sacrificed, so that her cheating Papa’s girlfriend could bear him a son.

Obele knows ‘Mother Voice’ is true. She has seen Kene’s ghost herself, and the vision was truly petrifying.

Obele’s only comfort lies in the children’s stories she reads, but she discovers new friends when ‘Mother Voice’ leads her to the cursed house where no-one else in the village will go. Here she meets The Sleepless – the fish-skinned spirits of young girls who were once abused, tortured and murdered, and who now joyously take revenge upon their tormentors, both in life and in death.

As the Biafran War rages and the terrors of daily survival match the awful supernatural secrets ‘Mother Voice’ reveals to her, Obele begins to suspect that ‘Mother Voice’ may not be her benign protector after all. When a brutal exorcism fails to rid her of ‘Mother Voice’, Obele finally begins to realise what she is and the incredible powers she possesses. She sets out on a mission to free the spirit of her murdered brother.

Nuzo Onoh has been called ‘the Queen of African Horror’ and, on the basis of The Sleepless, it is easy to see why. This is a visceral body-blow of a novel, infused with the kind of graphic and emotional intensity that seeps off the page and is hard to slough off once you’ve read it. Much like listening to one of Obele’s beloved campfire takes, Onoh’s tone is almost conversational – but that’s a trap. From the powerful but difficult to read opening, which should definitely be avoided by those with a weak stomach (and especially if cruelty to animals upsets you), The Sleepless is a juggernaut, made all the more potent by Onoh’s own experience of growing up during the Biafran conflict and witnessing man’s inhumanity first-hand. As a detestable period of history examined through the prism of a horror story, this is a fascinating accomplishment and open to endless interpretation: how much of Obele’s story is real, or just the little girl’s inner voice trying to protect her soul from shattering?

Absolutely not for the faint-hearted, The Sleepless is a genuine powerhouse of horror storytelling.



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