Cover Image: Nudibranch

Nudibranch

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Short stories, magical ones.

I am not sure, perhaps I am not enough of a "dreamer" to enjoy this kind of book but it wasn't for me. Metamorphosis and transformation aside, I am unable to read things that I can't make sense of and I can't make sense of things like this.

I imagine many will love these stories, depictions of fantasy beyond your imagination!
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There’s speculative fiction. There’s weird fiction. And then there’s the fiction of Irenosen Okojie, where the term “weird” is taken not just to another level, but another dimension. The fifteen stories in “Nudibranch” are mostly (but not always) set in recognisable places: the streets of London and Berlin, a monastery (somewhere in England?), an international airport. Yet, what happens in them is almost so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. One story, for instance, features time-travelling monks carrying out bloody acts under the watchful eye of a team of saints. Another involves a woman who turns into liquorice.

These flights of fancy are certainly intriguing. However, getting through this collection was, admittedly, particularly difficult. Okojie not only presents the reader with surreal scenarios, but conveys them in a dense, metaphor-laden language which straddles the worlds of prose and poetry and makes the strangeness stranger. Whether one enjoys this depends, I suspect, not just on one’s taste but also on one’s mood at a given point in time. I must admit that there were times when I just couldn’t get into the stories. And there are some of the pieces which I just didn’t understand despite my best efforts. Recommended if you like your fiction different and challenging.
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This collection is one where the situation and format in which I read it made a huge difference to my interpretation and enjoyment. Having originally picked this up as an ARC, I'd been fitting in stories here and there around my commute, but I was bouncing off most of them as my exhausted Tuesday-brain struggled to put together the weirdness and to switch from one story to the next (the formatting, which didn't have page breaks after each story, really didn't help with this) . Frustrated but not totally put off, I found the physical book in a bookshop, bought it, opened it back up at the beginning, and read it in one sitting at a coffee shop - with very different results. Of course, that's not to say that Nudibranch - a collection which takes its name from the group of vibrantly coloured, delightfully bizarre sea slugs - is not a weird book. From the adopted-son-turned-farmhand-turned-government-weapon of "Saudade Minus One (S  ̶  1 =)" to the eponymous backwards time traveller of "Daishuku" to the transdimensional tongue-protecting monks of "Filamo", Nudibranch is, by turns disjointed, disorienting and completely at home from everything to mundane slice-of-life flashes to high-concept time travel. While it starts with the very high concept flash piece "Logarithm" (which, alas, did nothing for me), and is quite definitely a literary fiction collection in its sensibilities, there's also a lot for fans of speculative fiction and shortform worldbuilding to enjoy here, with some lush writing to boot.

Two things seem to link Okojie's diverse set of protagonists. First, quite a few of them find themselves shifting from high concept slipstream weirdness into utterly mundane scenes of London life (I mean, who can't relate to turning into a giant human liquorice and then popping over to the Horniman Museum?) Second, and more interestingly, the characters of Nudibranch almost all come undone at the ends of their stories. Some of the moments are ambiguously metaphorical, like the protagonist at the end of "Cornotopia", who goes into an experimental treatment for post-trauma depression and ends, once the treatment apparently begins to work, by shrivelling up "like a carcass that had finally stopped tricking people into thinking it could breathe"; or a horror-like cutaway like "Point and Trill", a story which begins as the mundane tale of a struggling couple going on a night-time paintballing retreat, and then takes some very dark turns. Then there's the quite literal falling apart of the liquorice protagonist at the end of "Kookaburra Sweet" and the bizarre yet fitting sacrifice of the big-dreaming protagonist of "Mangata". Regardless of how it happens, what runs through this collection is the sense that these are people who, once their varied circumstances play out, then effectively come apart, exciting the stage in a variety of morbidly fascinating literary flourishes. It may sound a bit much, but I still managed to finish the collection in one sitting without feeling overwhelmed by morbidity, so its not nearly as grim as all that. In the end, I'm glad I persevered (and spent money on!) Nudibranch, a collection whose strongest images I suspect are going to stay with me for quite some time.
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Nudibranch is a collection of short stories featuring magic realism and focused around the theme of metamorphosis, transformation, the change from one state to another.

Here is the weird and the wonderful, where a woman can turn into liquorice, monks commit time-travelling murder, eunuchs mate with a sea goddess and monsters go paintballing.

The style of the stories is more like blank verse poetry than prose, and the content reads like someone recording their dreams (and nightmares) in a single stream-of-consciousness flood; capturing not only the surreal contents of their dreamscape, but the exact tone and atmosphere of that illogical, yet immersive, realm.

As such, this is not easy reading by any means, but it is oddly compelling in its strong portrayal of the intense insanity of the human spirit unbound. Irenosen Okojie paints a maelstrom of emotions and experiences, unable to be contained by mere miraculous meat suits; reaching for something beyond mere human boundaries and rules. The other is explored and admired in these tales of magical horror and horrific magic, glorying in all that is strange in thought and feeling.

If you are looking for something quick and sensical, then these are not the stories for you. If you want to swim in exceedingly weird tides of word-waves and surf beyond the boundaries of reason and reality, then these strange tales may be just what you need.



The eunuchs have clouds in their mouths; their motions are erratic, as though they’ll fall into the fire one by one backwards. They soften each other’s injuries with white puffs of breath. They are burning the clothes they arrived in. The sound of fire races to meet bright molluscs in a space that expands and shrinks as things unfold. The carrier pigeons squawk, producing a din that sounds like black rain falling at an angle on the heads of stillborns, like a crow beak tapping against the entrance of Kiru’s cold womb, like the screeching from going blind temporarily travelling through a tortoise shell in the sky, then falling into the water with shell markings that cause flurries, breaches and an undulating silence. They mimic the sound of a lung sinking, chasing an echo thinking it can catch it.

– Irenosen Okojie, ‘Nudibranch’ in Nudibranch


Review by Steph Warren of Bookshine and Readbows blog
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Metamorphosis is the word I would use to summarise this collection, the second one from Irenosen Okojie. Everything is poised to become something else, to be shifted under the imaginative eye of an author who isn’t afraid to stretch our conception of reality and pull it into new shapes. Her language is full of unusual simile, revealing how the ordinary world is steeped in myth and fairytale. 
	There is something of Angela Carter in the transformations, in the interest in circus, witches, wolves, belief and desire. Monks carry living saints’ tongues in their pockets, waiting to pay for their sins with the hammer and nails of religious fervour. Women form themselves from water, from clams to tempt men, or contort themselves to stay alive. Children and love are always one step away from possible destruction. Nothing feels certain or stable, but the possibility of flux. Nudibranch is almost a philosophical tract on the mutability of life.
	Sometimes stories settle in a present that opens into the surreal. Sometimes we slip into a near distant future where pain can be measured or stillborns reawakened as cyborg babies unable to grow and fed on pesticides. Peppered with hard scientific fact, the world of Nudibranch rips open new eyes for its readers. Nudibranch is exciting, fresh, angry, vivid, imaginative and routed to the stories of our past in ways that sometimes baffle but always delight. If you haven’t read it, just follow Ben Okri’s advice on Irenosen Okojie: ‘Read her for the risk, for the heart, for the imagination.’ Go on, you can still get it in time for Christmas.
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Butterfly Fish was the first work by Irenosen Okojie that I read, and the writing blew me away. She writes so beautifully, so elegantly, her prose reads almost like poetry. Her writing in Nudibranch is no different. The stories in this collection are only different from Butterfly Fish in the sense that they are more 'daring;' almost testing the limits of your imagination. But once you surrender to the magic of Okojie's pen, you're in for a wonderful ride.
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There were some great stories but I think overall the collection wasn't for me. There are some really original ideas but I felt a bit like I was drowning some of the time, with nothing to grasp onto and no idea of what was actually happening/ what was metaphor. The first story, the one with the Grace Jones impersonator, and the one that felt like a horror that started with the couple driving to meet friends in the country were the standouts for me.
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density of Okojie’s writing. They carry locations around the world, as they meld her ideas with places she has travelled and a great depth of folk history from her Nigerian background. Together this makes a deep and complex exploration of people and places through time. Time is not static and dreams meld with day to day reality to create a visual, creative swirl. This makes it hard for a reviewer to present this book to the unsuspecting reader. First because the density and complexity of the tales mean they need to be read slowly and absorbed at all their levels – reading them all to a tight deadline is near impossible. But their range and complexity of ideas make it hard to select salient points to attract you to this book. A book that it should be said is one that will draw divergent views with some deeply admiring of it and others finding it disturbing in ways hard to define. Take the Nudibranch of the title as a guide- it is a strange creature that evolves throughout its life.
Selecting a few examples early in the book in” Kookaburra Sweet” a woman is warned in Aboriginal tradition a person is what they eat. Travelling back to London she has apparently eaten liquorice – in the mental lethargy of jet lag, travel and personal emotion she will evolve into a liquorice person and dissolve. “Flame” is set in London too – modern residents interleave with the past monks of Barking Abbey – time is not static and some can cross over. In “Point and Trill” a “simple” invitation to a paintball weekend near Llanberis allows a simple “hunt” to evolve into something much more serious as characters evolve into something more than human, But another layer of thought to carry with you is how deeply do you know and understand someone you have lived closely with for years?  “Cornutopia” refers not just to the present but to a not entirely happy new tech. future too. “Saudade Minus Drie (S-1 =)” explores the fostering of  a new draft of experimental teenagers of limited life span in a  Midwestern US region – one that is ravaged by pollution and holds strange evolving beasts – while older people try to hold to recognisable agricultural lives. 
.Many of these are places that carry close parallels with today, but nonetheless are not where you would happily go. Setting aside the clear central thoughts that have tripped some of these tales – they all take the reader to other – and strange - places. Places of the mind that roil and writhe creating a seemingly endless series of images and alternate realities. Much of it is like living in a nightmare - of those strange and unreal places that it is hard to escape from; places not of words but strong and uncontrolled emotions. Nothing remains as you might have thought it was. Without describing this as a “marmite” book be aware that some readers will find this a magical and truly creative read – others will need to dip into the tales more slowly and in the right time and place.
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Okojie's novel falls under the magical realism genre; the imagery is strong and the lack of narrative boundaries is palpable. The defamiliarization of the familiar is definitely one of the aspects that gripped my attention, along with the emphasis on the theme of tranformation, of embracing the "Other", of reinventing oneself through a new identity.
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This is an interesting collection of short stories, often in the realms of magic realism or symbolism. Throughout the collection, the motif of transformation dominates: a woman wakes up to find she has turned into a piece of liquorice; a group of friends gather for an evening of paintball only for it to turn into an horrific gore-fest; a woman earns her living by impersonating Grace Jones; people literally shed their outer skin and become something other...

Okojie is clearly a wonderful writer, her turn of phrase is deft and exact, and there are glimpses of some wonderful poetic prose; in one story a man falls for a trans woman, describing her as 'the curve of a kaleidoscope landed on a moon'. Wonderful. These are involving and elusive stories, where the idea of mutating becomes a metaphor for something wider in each case. And the stories are wide-reaching in their geographical setting, veering from London to Berlin to Africa and the US.

The reader is constantly left with unanswered questions, having to work out just what might be going on, typified by the final story where the main character had suffered a previous brain trauma and wonders if he might be undergoing another. Challenging and just slightly out of reach of your fingertips, this is a fascinating collection, with some stories being stronger and more engaging than the others. For all that, much as I enjoyed it, it just felt a little same-y, and after the first 'story' - a lyrical invocation that sets the tone for what is to come - it never quite hits those heights again. Definitely recommended, a strong 3.5 stars. 

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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The stories in this book were poetic, strange, otherwordly and haunting. 
It's rare to read something so unusually vivid, but that makes the stories linger and stay with you for a while after you've read them.
I thoroughly enjoyed. I would read this again as well as being open to reading other works by Okojie. I would definitely recommend.
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A wonderful collection of short stories, the characters cover a wide range of personalities  and situations, each story feels very different from the next m the world building, characterisation is just magical, she has such a unique and beautiful writing style, it’s enthralling and captivating to go with the flow of the stories. If you’re looking for something different, original, magical and truly innovative read these stories 

Thanks to netgalley and the publisher for a free copy for an honest opinion
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One thing you have to say regarding Irenosen Okojie's work is that it displays imagination and innovation. Magical realism may be the appropriate term to use but other words such as surrealist, absurdist, fantasy and horror also immediately come to mind. But perhaps the word to be used above all else is experimental and with Okojie you enter a world without defined boundaries or laid down set rules. 

The stories are set around the world and indeed you enter a world that is mostly recognisable and familiar for instance I know East Street, Barking Market but then this setting is superimposed with something outside one's world and reason. (in this case time travelling monks from the nearby abbey that closed in 1539). Portals into other worlds, mythical creatures and a fair bit of cannibalism will be encountered. Like most collections some stories are more accessible and interesting than others but the overall effect will have the reader slightly discomforted and perhaps even mesmerised. If you are looking for something different then you could do far worse then try this short story collection.
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A wonderful collection of stories - different to each other but all dazzling. this is the first I've read Okojie but it won't be the last; if Nudibranch is anything to go by, she will have a long and fruitful career ahead of her and I can't wait to read everything she writes.
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When I was a teenager, I was absorbed by A.S. Byatt's 'The Stone Woman', about a woman who is gradually turning into stone. Much more recently, Sarah Hall's memorable 'Mrs Fox' told the story of a woman who turns into a fox, although from the point of view of her husband. Therefore, the premise of the first full-length story in Nudibranch, Irenosen Okojie's new short story collection 'Kookaburra Sweet' - which is about a woman who turns into liquorice - wasn't in itself off-putting. I sometimes think that I don't like 'magical realism', but, even putting aside the problematic ways in which that term has started to be used so broadly, I'm not sure that's true; I do like magical realism when it's done well. Unfortunately, this is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and I don't think most of the stories that I read from this collection pull it off.

For me, 'magical realism' in its broad sense is distinguished from speculative or science fiction, or even from horror, by its lack of boundaries. So, in speculative fiction, strange things might happen but they tend to have a rational explanation, even if it's impossible; even in horror or ghost stories, there are certain rules that govern the monster's behaviour ('don't stay in the old house overnight'). Magical realism, it seems to me, doesn't really deal in rules or explanations, because it's trying to convey reality in a different way. However, for this to work for me, the stories need to feel psychologically real, and that was what was lacking throughout much of the first half of this collection. Byatt's 'The Stone Woman' made such an impression on me because of the horror the central character feels when she realises she's turning to stone. In contrast, Kara, the woman who turns to liquorice, doesn't seem too bothered; after her fingers almost melt under the hot water from her taps, she just goes back to what she was thinking about before: 'Sydney had been a disaster. She was broken by it. Almost.' While I understand that the story isn't meant to be read literally, this weird mix of realism and the magical didn't work for me.

Part of this is due to Okojie's writing. I read her first collection, Speak Gigantular, when it first came out and remember very little about it other than that it felt under-edited. Much of her writing here also has that first-draft feeling; there are wonderful sentences, but then others that just aren't very good. Often the similes are just too complicated, as in the opening to 'Grace Jones': '

'Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning... the phone rang, shrill, invasive, demanding. Still on the floor, the wood cold against her skin, she crawled to the receiver tentatively, as if her limbs were tethered to a thread on the earth's equator, the thread bending and collapsing into the different stages of her life.'

Certain images reoccur in this collection - body parts turn up in unexpected places, things melt, people perform rituals - but there doesn't seem to be much purpose to it. Some stories conjure up fascinating worlds but then don't make much use of them, such as 'Filamo', set in an otherworldly monastery, and 'Saudade Minus One (S - 1 = )', which looks at a future in which children are malfunctioning. The one story of those I read which worked for me was 'Point and Shrill'; Okojie's writing is much more restrained, and it allows the eeriness of the story to take centre stage as it moves from naturalism into horror.

I read about half of these stories, but then concluded that this collection wasn't for me. It reminds me most strongly of a less accomplished version of Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, so if that's your sort of thing, this might work better for you. 2.5 stars.
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Transformations, turning points and trajectories.

This short story collection is populated by Grace Jones impersonators, sea goddesses and time-hopping vagrants. Characters reinvent themselves (Grace Jones and Komza Bright Morning), they grapple with situations not of their making (the loss or absence of a child is a recurring theme), and they find themselves at turning points, recognising, too late, the trajectories they might have taken (Kookaburra Sweet and Cornutopia).

The collection opens with the incantatory Logarithm serving to place the reader in the world of Nudibranch. Here, the ordinary meets the fantastic, the familiar is defamiliarized and natural phenomena are celebrated. 

Okojie’s writing is multifaceted: earthy, baroque, brutal and rhapsodic. She paints striking images which prize open the reader’s mind. The language is a marvellous symphony of sound and ideas. Her prose rewards careful reading.

Striking and extraordinary.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK, for the ARC.
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