Yewande Omotoso is known for her second novel, The Woman Next Door, longlisted for the Women’s prize in 2017. As a reading experience, the follow-up An Unusual Grief is like a river. The story gathers turbulence and pace as it passes through its reader, twisting and turning back on itself until at last its emotional torsion seems to open out, as the grief fuelling this narrative achieves acceptance, or perhaps surrender, and the novel subsides into contemplative emotion. As a mapping of the progress of grief it skirts cliche, but only because grief does follow certain patterns. As the shape to a story it’s deeply satisfying.
Mojisola’s daughter Yinka has taken her own life, and in a traumatised fugue state, Mojisola travels to Yinka’s flat in Johannesburg from her home in Cape Town, leaving her serially unfaithful husband, Titus, behind her. She moves into the ruins of her daughter’s life, befriending her daughter’s former landlord and occasional drug dealer Zelda as she rents the flat for herself, and seeks to excavate who Yinka was and what happened to her. This search takes her deep into a life that is entirely unlike the one she herself has lived. Of course, it doesn’t work: the threads left behind do not amount to the person, as Mojisola eventually accepts. In the end, the closest thing to an insight into the day her daughter died turns out to be something Mojisola left behind in Cape Town. What she finds in Johannesburg is the unknowability of any other life – even her own child’s.
Omotoso is good on grief, trauma, families, loss – but when it comes to the way people in extremes of emotion still have to do the washing up, or the way people go back to difficult marriages, and lives take on patterns that become their defining themes, she’s outstanding. The only real false note is the decision to place the point of catharsis at the moment where Mojisola cries for her daughter for the first time; the novel is more than good enough not to have needed that Hollywood moment. This caveat aside, An Unusual Grief reveals itself as a beautiful book that offers emotional truth to its readers, and a feeling of consolation for the imperfections we are all making our peace with, all the time.