Ben Okri & Mónica Ojeda
Every Leaf a Hallelujah
(Other Press, 2022)
Translated by Sarah Booker
(Coffee House Press, 2022)
These two very different tales share few themes beyond the nascent power of young girls and a characterization of the natural world as essential in understanding our own humanity. Where Booker Prize winner Ben Okri’s (The Famished Road) magically graceful environmental fairy tale is full of light and hope, Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone is rife with gothic body horror and the darkness of the jungle and within ourselves.
Every Leaf a Hallelujah is the story of Mangoshi, a young African girl tasked with retrieving a special flower from the oldest tree deep in the forest. Mangoshi’s mother is ill and the flower holds the ability to cure her. Although she is very young, Mangoshi travels alone from her village to the nearby forest. She finds the flower easily enough, but on the way back she becomes lost, “the paths had seemed to multiply and become confusing.” A strange mist obscures the path in front of her and darkness falls. Mangoshi falls asleep against a tree and wakes to murmuring voices: “There were deep old voices, and strong voices, and small lovely ones.” They are all talking at once and Mangoshi cannot understand what they are saying. While she slept, the trees had gathered around her “in a dense circle, like elders at a tribal meeting.” Although she is afraid, Mangoshi stays and listens to the trees and their message. But she soon tells herself that she was dreaming, imagining their voices. She finds the path back to her village but she has forgotten the flower, lost in the mist. While her parents are disappointed she’s lost the flower, they’re happy to have their daughter back home safe.
Mangoshi forgets her time in the forest, although a tree near her window tells her one night, “We are waiting for you.” A year soon passes and she forgets about the forest and the voices of the trees. The harvests grow poor, temperatures rise, and the people in her village grow ill from an unknown sickness. Mangoshi is again tasked with going to the forest to find the flower which can cure her mother and the others in the village; only a young girl can find this flower. But the forest is different: where once there were trees, now she finds only stumps, “The land was burnt, trees were fallen,” the earth is “broken.” She realizes that although she is frightened by the destruction, she has to find the flower, or what “happened to the forest would one day happen to the village.” She sits on a fallen iroko tree and the tree laments the destruction but explains that all trees are connected, “If one suffers, all suffer.” The inoko tree also tells Mangoshi that the flower she seeks may no longer exist, “Only when the forest is healthy and happy does it grow.” But the inoko tree urges her to ask the oldest and wisest tree, the baobab, for guidance.
Mangoshi meets with the baobab tree and takes “a journey round the world and through time.” Together they visit different trees in different places and times and learn that trees “hold the earth together” and are essential for human survival. They travel back to the forest near her village and Mangoshi sleeps. When she wakes many of the trees have been cut down and there are men, “tree cutters,” who are moving against the forest. Mangoshi screams and is able to stop them from cutting down the trees. Through Mangoshi’s efforts, people come to help her save the trees, and finally, she finds the special flower that will save her mother and the village. The baobab tells her that her courage has saved the forest and the tale ends on a note of hope for the future of Mangoshi’s village, the forest near her home, and for trees everywhere. Although it’s a tale written for children, with the central environmental message and graceful prose, combined with Diana Ejaita’s stunning illustrations, it should resonate with older readers too.
The cover of the Italian edition of Jawbone—Mandibula (I Selvaggi)—is an image of two half naked young women balancing on the teeth of a massive jawbone. One of the young women holds the other’s hand, pulling her along. It’s a striking image and reflects a central theme in the story of best friends Fernanda and Annelise. The cover of the forthcoming English-language Coffee House Press edition (Ojeda’s English debut) has a striking collage of two lovely young women merged into one along with another image from the novel—a white crocodile. Both cover images signal that all is not well in the long and intense friendship between Fernanda and Annelise. This is not just a tale of young female friendship gone too far, it’s a warning about the dangers of allowing desires to grow uncontrolled and unquestioned, of ceding one’s self to another’s dark impulses.
Fernanda and Annelise are best friends, students at the exclusive private Delta Bilingual Academy, High-School-for-Girls (the hyphens are Ojeda’s, a quirk she uses throughout the novel). Set in and around Guayaquil, Ecuador, Jawbone, opens and closes with Fernanda tied up in a cabin in the forest, kidnapped by her literature teacher, Miss Clara López Valverde. How Fernanda and Clara got here is the crux of this very dark tale told across 32 chapters in varying forms (two-person dialogue, stream of consciousness, close third-person), told by Fernanda, Annelise/Anna, and Miss Clara.
As Fernanda considers her terrifying predicament in the first chapter—held captive by her clearly insane teacher and accused of something she can’t figure out—her voice shows her strength of personality. She knows she needs to escape but, “unfortunately, self-awareness doesn’t make anyone Wonder Woman.” She curses like a sailor and we see her not as a frightened young girl but as a tough young woman who may just survive her teacher’s madness. Fernanda tells us she “always imagined violence as a crashing of waves that engulfed the rocks until bursting against the flesh of something living,” but this violence enacted against her by her teacher is instead a “theater of shadows … [a] stillness.” For the first time, she tells us, “she was aware of her own vulnerability.” What Fernanda hasn’t yet realized and what we will learn is that it is not just Miss Clara’s madness that brought her here but a much deeper and personal betrayal.
Children of wealthy parents, Fernanda and Annelise have been best friends since they were young children. Although there are power struggles, theirs is a close (perhaps too close) friendship at the core of a group of six young women at Delta. After school, this group of young women begin to create their own ritualistic games, in the space of an abandoned building in the process of being swallowed by the surrounding forest, a place where, “Divine chaos devours human order” and a crocodile and myriad snakes lurk. They soon decide to tell each other horror stories—if a story didn’t scare the others, the teller had to complete a challenge. As the stories become more terrifying, the challenges become more dangerous and the girls feel, “a sensation of power and control that outweighed the physical pain.”
While we learn about the girls’ exploits, we also hear from Miss Clara. She suffers from acute anxiety disorder exacerbated by memories of her abusive mother and a terrible event at her previous school. In sections told from Miss Clara’s point of view, the language is cramped, full of long sentences and distractions including her dead mother’s voice, all perfectly mirroring her deteriorating mental state:
It wasn’t that they excused what Those Girls did to her—Clara concluded, smoothing her skirt while, to her left, a mother won a game of Candy Crush—but that, as her colleagues and superiors understood it, there had to be motives behind an act that violent and disconcerting; motives like the girls’ home lives, their friendships outside of school, their consumption of narcotics, and of course, their relationship with Clara…
and so on. Our first introduction to Miss Clara is a scene where she is waiting to be interviewed for the teaching job at Delta and we hear her rambling anxious thoughts—already in no state to be teaching at the beginning of her job, it’s no surprise she ends up the way she does.
Annelise shifts the horror-story-or-dare game into something more sinister as she creates a mythology around a “White God”—based loosely on a reading of Melville and imaginative recreations of internet horror (Slender Man and others). As Fernanda tells us in a later scene after she’s been kidnapped, “there was something unnamable and unsettling in whiteness—after all, that’s what inspired Annelise’s story about the white age and the White God.” We learn later, in a “perverse” essay Annelise turns in to Miss Clara, that “the white age” is puberty. For Annelise, “In adolescence, what’s most beautiful and most horrible comes to the surface, the same way that within the color white, there can exist both purity and putrefaction.” This state of being, Annelise claims, is what makes Miss Clara so terrified of her students. It is also the basis for Annelise’s ever-evolving violent rituals to the White God in the girls’ secret and abandoned building.
While Ojeda is playing with cultural themes around the power of young girls “on the cusp,” and the connections between “purity/putrefaction” and magic, there are real forces at work in the novel as well—it’s not all just horror stories and scary games, abandoned buildings and encroaching forest. Fernanda and Annelise have always been physically close—showering together, sleeping together—and as they mature, they explore each other’s bodies. At Annelise’s urging, Fernanda becomes more violent in her attentions until Annelise is left bruised and bloodied (and taking photos of herself and posting them to Instagram). There may be some suspicions about Fernanda’s violent tendencies (she’s been in therapy throughout her childhood, possibly suspected of killing her younger brother) and at one point she “does not explain to Dr. Aguilar that the blots in the Rorschach test are Annelise’s bones … that her jawbone is white and is made to devour.” But Fernanda becomes less Annelise’s equal and more a follower, until eventually, there is a violent rift in their relationship and we can only fear for Fernanda in a terrifying final chapter.
Although critics reference Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, Ojeda is a strikingly singular voice, combining basic teen angst (filtered through Pretty Little Liars or Dark Academy) with stark madness and the power of teen girls to push back in a world that tries to make them powerless.