Title: Gentlemen of the Bar
Author: Umari Ayim
Publisher: Okadabooks (www.okadabooks.com)
Reviewer: Ehichoya Ekozilen
Gentlemen of the Bar, by Umari Ayim, is an entertaining and intense story which explores contemporary issues, ranging from feminism to delinquency. This story has considerable moral seriousness and convincing details. I was nearly put off by the e-book’s bland title and its even blander cover design but I am glad I read it. Ayim has an eye for dramatic detail and uses subtlety in the manner of a great artist. She has the ability to transport the reader to the scene in a way few authors are able to. This is the sort of author I want to read again and again. You flow with the story once you make up your mind to ignore the distractions caused by bad punctuating and typing errors.
This story deals with enduring themes, including family, the justice system, workplace safety, crime, jealousy, class, corruption and human rights. The story switches between the first person and the third person points of view, with the leading characters acting as narrators. This worked effectively to bring clarity to their perspectives.
She is a feminist. She resents male privilege; in fact, she resents far more—the male species. He is the archetypal alpha male—intelligent, quick-witted, good-looking and poised. Things come to a head quickly when her father brought them together against each other.
A chair squeaks and I turn to her to find a frown of impatience on her face.
“What is the point in all this?”
Heads turn this way and that as the other lawyers forget to slouch in their chairs. I am conscious of the eyes watching me, waiting for my reaction. I breathe deeply and edit her from my field of vision. I nod at the client.
She is intelligent and has sufficient common touch to be likeable, but she is prone to sudden episodes of melodrama and is far too emotional to be clear-headed. She later has cause to reassert to her friends that she is still a feminist. She proposes to a man but is afterwards unsure it was the proper thing to do. Feminism is a recurring theme in this work. We see it in Angela’s rebellion against keeping to the “place” of the female and Naden’s quip about women who turn their attention to their sons so they would have a male to pamper after the passing of their husband.
I am still incensed when my friends leave for lunch. I reach for my phone and dial a number.
“Hello,” says the voice of the man who provided occasional intimacy when I needed it.
“Hi. Can we meet later?”
“Hmm, this is a nice surprise and it is not even my birthday yet.”
I roll my eyes.
“You know me Angie, later…now…tomorrow…I am always at your beck and call.”
“Fine then. See you at six.”
Yet, this is not feminist literature. If it is, she is far less well-executed than him. In fact, the feminists will not like this story; for, in the end, the two contenders are not evenly matched and one emerges the star of the story while the other ends up a foil. But perhaps Angela’s combative feminism is understandable. She was raised to be a strong woman by her father, an aloof Brahman who’s at the top of his lawyering—and chess—game. He it was who introduced her to chess at a young age, taught her to think independently and presumably sent her to good schools. And then he installs a glass ceiling for her which she would have none of. She further sees his resentment over not having a son and dismisses him as just another priest of patriarchy.
As much as this is a feminist story, it is a whodunit story, a love story, a happily-ever-after story, a thriller story and more. Ayim has considerable mastery of human psychology and the nuances of behaviour. The story is laced with vivid descriptions and metaphors. Ayim manages the technical aspect of the story well—well, almost. The legal pyrotechnics with their accoutrements of dry vernacular pop out every now and then and Ayim carries the lay reader along sufficiently well.
Ayim knows what she writes about and mostly gets the small things right—descriptions, sensory descriptions, sub-plots, places, names, pacing, street scenes. As the story gathers pace, the reader is transported from a gilded bedroom in Lagos to a sterile bush hut in Edo State, from a soulless courtroom in Kano to the brackish streets of Bariga in Lagos. You can feel the ambience and are at no loss as to time or the national mood at the time. The characters are well-developed and believable. Ayim knows everyone of them intimately and so does the reader as the story progresses.
The dialogues and internal monologues are mostly good and help to advance the story. They sound like real people talking real things in real situations; there is not much of the contrived dialogue or stilted aestheticising that often produces characters that sound like clowns rehearsing for a show and may spoil an otherwise good story. However, some of the events alluded to in the lives of the characters, a number of them historical, do not fit properly within the time frame assigned to them. Examples include the number of years the relationship between the man and his wife had broken down and the fellow who was five when the sultan died in a plane crash but had become a lawyer by 2014.
Ayim makes good use of conflict to give life to the story. There is Naden who has to deal with a moral struggle between his conscience and his professional duty to his client as well as loyalty to his munificent boss. “This is just a job,” he is forced to reassure himself. There are the man and his wife who have to overcome their egos and recall the old days to make their marriage survive the long-running storm. Even the recurring conflict between the two leading characters transcends their clash of egos to take on events around them. Ayim resolves the conflicts well, albeit with too much intuiting sometimes going on. Can we just have main characters that rely on subtle clues and the words, actions and even “body language” of other characters—please? Anyim ties up most of the loose ends well. The ending seems a bit fantastic but I think most readers will love it.
Gentlemen of the Bar is a serious piece of work but there are a few humorous scenes. One involved a kidnapped senator who rendered this prayer while tied up like a hen readied for the market.
“The king that is greater than the king of the land, Olokun, please help me. Ogun send me help.”
Followed by this song when he is rescued.
“Covenant keeping God, there is no one like you…
Alpha and Omega, there is no one like you…”
Gentlemen of the Bar is beautiful prose heavily tainted by wrong use of punctuation, typing errors and some poor finishing. The missing comma is common throughout the work—like these ones.
The judge, balding and missing two incisors gives Barrister Shuaibu a pitying look.
The memory of her voice came back to him, her voice filtered and disembodied by a weak network signal, filled his ears.
There are superfluous words like “very modern bar”. Then there are mixed-up words.
“What if he really has nothing to hide and you are just been paranoid.”
Forcing herself to overcome the embarrassment of being found in a suggestive little night dress that hadn’t even being her idea in the first place, she walked to the bed…
(See our article on being and been.)
Some are typing errors—like the place where struck is written when stuck is meant. There are continuity issues, too, with Barrister Taiwo becoming Barrister John a few sentences down. There is an apparent lack of appreciation of the concept of surname, as Senator Nosakhare Osarodion is referred to as Senator Nosakhare.
The introduction of a whodunit sub-plot rather late in the story seemed contrived—like something brought in to prolong the story; it is to Ayim’s credit that she manages to make it work with the plot. The metamorphosis of the man from a coldblooded lawyer and wife beater—well, he maltreated his wife—to the embodiment of compassion and a model husband was less well-managed. But that is common with happily-ever-after plots.