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Measuring Time

Virginia Library Foundation’s Fiction award in 2008

The author is a Caine Prize Award winner

Mamo and LaMamo are twin brothers whose mother leaves the world as they enter it. They grow up in a small village in Northern Nigeria with a philandering and domineering father, Lamang. Dreaming of escape, they decide to run away to become soldiers. Mamo falls sick and is forced to stay behind. He hears from his brother via sketchy letters, as LaMamo joins a rebel group near the Chad border, trains in Libya, then fights alongside Charles Taylor’s rebels in Liberia.

Still in the village, Mamo explores local history. He is recruited by the traditional ruler, the Mai, to write a ‘true’ history of his people. As Lamang fights for political office and Mamo falls in love, LaMamo risks his life for a cause he no longer believes in. As backdrop, Measuring Time has a cast of memorable characters: the devout Christian Aunt Mariana, a witch, a drunken cousin, two unmarried daughters of the white American missionary and Zara, Mamo’s bold and thoughtful lover.

This is an epic novel charting the turbulent recent history of Nigeria through the eyes of a single family. Measuring Time is destined to become a classic of African literature.

In a penetrating story of contemporary Nigeria, twin brothers want to escape their village of Keti, and war seems the best way to fame and glory. But Mamo has sickle-cell disease, and he must stay home, reading his brother’s letters about adventures across the border and, later, about the brutal wars in which he fights. The twins’ wealthy politician father rejects the “weak,” sickly son, but an uncle inspires Mamo to attend university, read widely, and teach; by the time the soldier returns many years later, Mamo has been offered work as palace biographer, but, instead of the expected hagiography, he writes a true history of his people; inspired by Plutarch, he tells the stories of individual people, “farmers, workers, housewives.” Prizewinning Nigerian writer Habila does just that, too, portraying with great immediacy the twins’ extended family, their lovers, and neighbors. Best of all is the realistic drama of tradition and modernity–the evils of both but also the rich possibilities that come with their complex interaction. Hazel Rochman

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