Like most thrilling narratives, What Happened to Janet Uzor by Miracle Emeka-Nkwor pumps readers full of suspense and anticipation. At every interval, you find yourself making wild guesses about the person behind the threatening messages penned with blood. You take a guess, and another guess, and then another, and just when you think that you’ve cracked the code, the author introduces the mind-numbing plot twist. On that, I would wager that Miracle Emeka-Nkwor did something remarkable with her debut. Now, what really happened to Janet?
Janet has been dead for a little more than a year and now Pamela, one of her closest friends, is also on the verge of being killed. Who would also want Pamela, a teenage girl in secondary school with one best friend left and a single parent, dead? “Is somebody really leaving threats written in blood in front of my house? Why? Who did I offend?” Pamela shares the blood-written notes with Ebere, her friend, who in turn shares it with people that might be helpful in unraveling the mystery. What exceeds the binding seal of notes written in blood? Hadraawi, the Somali poet in his “Has love been blood-written” understands the depth of this sort of promise, and the extent it can go. Even the girls, though young, could tell that this is no ordinary threat. It is as real as the breath they inhale.
These girls are resolute in their plan to get the killer before the killer gets them, but not once did they think that taking the matter to their own parents directly might resolve anything. This is beyond puzzling. It is disconcerting, but not surprising when your parent utter words like, “Did I just catch you talking to yourself again? You know you’re on holiday? It’s nothing to me if you want to spend one week in the Apostolic Church seeking deliverance.” Knowing this, Pamela becomes incredibly cautious of what she discloses to her father because he might whisk her off for deliverance, or worse, have her credible fears dismissed. The best way both girls could broach the topic with their parents is to go through someone their parents trust, or else they will end up locked up in the house or church forever. The fact that the person they choose to trust is unreliable is not the sad thing, it is the fact that they cannot open up to their own parents who live with them under the same roof.
Apart from highlighting some deep-seated family issues, this novel concretises the nonchalance of the police to their victim’s plight. Four murders have gone unsolved with another looming on the horizon, yet they take these kids’ speculations with a grain of salt. An Inspector tells them, “At seventeen, your brains are not fully developed yet. You think because you look like adults, you’re grown up? No. You people are like zombies, controlled by emotions and hormones.” Even if this is true, what will it take to humour them? What will it take to pull all their resources to solve the mystery behind the deaths and save a life? Yet, they insist on calling it a prank. Well, until the case gets to the desk of DSP Sokariba George.
While on the quest to find who killed Janet with the hope that it will connect them with the holiday killer, they find out disturbing truths about Janet and her activities in school prior to her death. They question a few people, and they begin to piece the puzzle together as to who the killer might be. Amidst all these, Pamela’s father is planning a surprise for her, old flames begin to rekindle, and alliances are formed, but the killer still manages to strike a final blow.
In its typical YA fashion, the novel employs the language of the young adults in Port Harcourt where the book is set. It is simple and the dialogue is buoyed by Pidgin English. I think it is safe to issue a caveat here that if you are not familiar with Pidgin English, you might not find the transition between the narration and the dialogue easy. But that is largely improbable because most Nigerians speak variations of the language anyway. I also have to admit that it is this simplicity I find unnerving in this narrative. I am not one for narratives that send me to the dictionary every few minutes or narratives riddled with excessive descriptions, but I think this debut could use a little bit of profundity.
Some of the characters could use a little more back story. The events leading up to the climax could have been more gripping if it was better developed. The point is the narrative could use a little more intensity.
Despite all these, I would not fail to admit the fact that I did not see the way it ended coming. That ending definitely knocked my socks off. The plot twist was crafted with careful precision. It is absolutely commendable. If you read this book and you piece together who the holiday killer is before the author reveals it, then you’re probably a criminal mastermind yourself.