A Homecoming

Maya Binyam, Hangman

Pushkin One, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781911590774

reviewed by Patrick Christie

After living in America for 26 years, a man returns to his native country in sub-Saharan Africa to visit his dying brother. Both the narrator and the country he is visiting are left unnamed in Hangman, Maya Binyam’s debut novel. Proper nouns in general are missing from the text, with the places and people the narrator encounters given labels such as ‘the yoghurt man’, ‘the town where I was expected’ or ‘my son’s mother’s brother’. Absent too, are any substantive descriptions — of the terrain or local architecture, for example — that might help provide a sense of place to his journey. Initially, these omissions may strike the reader as an attempt to imbue a sense of universalism to the story of a migrant returning home but it quickly becomes clear that they are in fact a component of the relentlessly flat narration Binyam has employed to strip each of her main character’s interactions down to its barest elements.

Hangman begins with the narrator receiving a phone call that instructs him to take a flight. He is supplied with a packed bag and a plane ticket but is not sure by whom. He is ‘neither happy nor unhappy’ to be going home. His passivity continues throughout the novel, with the journey to his brother’s village being propelled through a series of seemingly chance encounters. With the main character left as a void at the centre of the narration, it is the stories of those he meets that fill this space — much like the figures in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. The narrator’s cousin boasts about how he has become rich acting as an intermediary to connect rural villages to the electricity grid; a taxi driver points out ‘staircases that lead nowhere’ for an elevated transport system that will never be built because of a dispute between the government and foreign investors; a former priest offers the narrator second hand clothes donated ‘in exchange for reduced tariffs on imports, things like coffee, oil and tea. . . in quantities so large they occupied entire municipal buildings.’

As sideways commentaries on the politics of development these monologues are only partially successful and less interesting than the personal stories told by other people he encounters, such as a white aid worker that has adopted a baby whose food she had to pre-chew while he was a new born or the good-looking graduate student who recounts the political activities of his father, a story which bears a strong resemblance to the life of the narrator. For although his motivations remain opaque, a sliver of biography reveals itself piece by piece. The reader learns that the narrator was imprisoned following a military coup but, after a successful escape attempt, flees to America as a refugee, leaving an infant son behind. By the time of his return, he has obtained American citizenship and works as a taxi driver.

Despite being tortured with hot coals during his confinement, the narrator declares: ‘personally, I was fairly certain that I was done with the trauma portion of my life,’ though he goes on to concede that he’s not sure his ‘relatives would agree with that assessment.’ Distress at returning to a country he was forcibly exiled from would certainly offer one explanation for the narrator’s strange behaviour throughout the novel. On the rare occasions he does express agency, it is through the shedding of his possessions. He leaves his suitcase in a taxi; abandons his wallet in bank in an attempt to make a deposit into an account that doesn’t exist; he accepts dirty, donated clothes in place of his own; and offers up his passport in lieu of a prescription in an attempt to obtain some blood pressure medication.

This shedding of his personal possessions is accompanied by what appears to be a complete disintegration of the narrator’s sense of self at the climax of the novel as Binyam makes a bravura stylistic slip into surrealism: ‘my speech had no language, and my body had no movement. The inside of my body was gone, and the outside of it looked like nothing.’ In her acknowledgements, she thanks the author Verlyn Klinkenborg for having ‘read my narrator’s voice and encouraged me to continue, even when others may have believed I would lead myself to a dead end.’ Many authors may have indeed hit a dead end working with such a set of constraints but Binyam manages to pull it off with a narrative self-discipline that ensures Hangman doesn’t outstay its welcome and leaves the reader wondering what, exactly, they have just read.
Patrick Christie is a writer living in London. His writing has appeared in the London Magazine, Litro, the Mechanics’ Institute Review and elsewhere.