Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

The pitch for Anietie Isong’s Radio Sunrise caught my eye because it seemed to be about making a documentary in Nigeria; plus, other sites describe it as satirical:

Ifiok, a young journalist working for the government radio station in Lagos, aspires to always do the right thing but the odds seem to be stacked against him. Government pressures cause the funding to his radio drama to get cut off, his girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he is having an affair with an intern, and kidnappings and militancy are on the rise in the country. When Ifiok travels to his hometown to do a documentary on some ex-militants’ apparent redemption, a tragicomic series of events will make him realise he is unable to swim against the tide.

Rather than being a teaser, this blurb is more like a summary. What I took as introductory/set-up material forms the first half of the novel. Ifiok doesn’t leave for his village until after the 50% mark and the documentary is pushed to the margins. The plot moves well and events accumulate naturally, but they’re often described in a cursory manner that doesn’t give a reader’s imagination much to do.

Ifiok is introduced as an observant journalist in the opening chapter, but so much sound, color, and vivacity are only hinted at. Things are often beautiful, opulent, or poor with few visual cues or specific details. A non-spoiler example: There is a scene in which Ifiok discusses fancy office chairs with a man who has purchased them via questionable funds. There’s a wall of dialogue about these chairs and their cost, but the reader doesn’t have a mental image to form his or her own opinion because the chairs aren’t described. Reading this scene feels like being the third wheel while two friends share an inside joke.

This sounds like a petty complaint and, if this were the only scene like this, I wouldn’t mention it. But there’s a curious mix of too much information and not enough throughout the book. Because Radio Sunrise is dialogue-heavy, conversations are the basis for most character development. The supporting cast is largely introduced via their conversations with Ifiok. Small talk is conveyed in great detail, but scenes often end when the real conversation starts, only for Ifiok to summarize its point and conclusion later. This makes it hard to connect with characters because the moments that would illuminate their views and motivations are happening off-screen.

It’s one thing to have small moments happen off the page, but there’s an instant in the climax when Ifiok is at his most passionate that should have been shown. He’s engaged in a screaming match, yet his words are unknown to the reader. Why? Because Ifiok can’t remember what he said. If he wants to forego a verbatim account, that’s one thing, but to not even give the reader a paraphrased piece of his mind? You could say Ifiok’s memory gap helps to reinforce the novel’s point, but a story and its subtext should not be at odds in such a way that one weakens the other. The ending is diminished for not hearing Ifiok’s views, even if his forgetfulness might be part of the story.

As to the positive, I liked that the story was told from Ifiok’s perspective as he tries to remain an ethical journalist—one who doesn’t prioritize bribes and money over reporting. The pacing is solid and the dialogue is ambitious; the dialogue does a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of character and plot development. There’s potential here too. Throughout, I wondered if this story would work better as a (long) short story or novella. If it were pared down, some of the transitions would be less jarring and the ending wouldn’t feel so rough. Ambiguous endings seem easier to take with short fiction, perhaps because there is much less of an investment (time- and otherwise).

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Jacaranda Books (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: NetGalley

2 thoughts on “Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong”

  1. Yeesh, right away I had a problem with how sexist the synopsis sounded:

    “Ifiok…aspires to always do the right thing but the odds seem to be stacked against him. …his girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he is having an affair with an intern…”

    Erm, the odds aren’t stacked against him when he’s willingly putting his penis in someone else. That’s sexist language that suggests the girlfriend should have stuck it out with him despite his infidelity.

    1. The infidelity is strangely written. Ifiok seems surprised to be having an affair and it’s over very quickly (in terms of word count). I was sorry to see his girlfriend leave because she was one of the more vibrant characters. A lot of the supporting cast blurred together for me, especially after she left.

      I’m starting to realize that I’m not a fan of passive narrators. The passivity almost works for Ifiok because he’s a journalist and there are scenes where he needs to watch more than participate, but this mindset intrudes into the rest of his life. Too much passivity can flatten a story.

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