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Longlisted for the 2022 Edge Hill Prize | Longlisted for the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize
Published 6 October 2021 | French paperback with flaps, 160 pages
One bottle of water, three hundred and twenty books, one hundred packets of cigarettes, fifty lighters, three boxes of toothpicks, a baby bottle, five litres of whisky, one of gin, one hundred of vinegar, six kitchen knives, ninety tampons with applicators, ninety-five without, a small crate of ginger ale, a box of crispy fried onions, mismatched earrings, rings, bracelets, a love letter, two vials of insulin, five bags of glucose, earplugs, a month’s supply of contraceptive pills, a letter of recommendation, eight bank statements, a lemon zester, thirty hairpins, ten syringes, a half-pint of blood.
Now GG’s got a gun and she ah adds it to the pile, rolls onto her backside and smokes. Later, I’ll tell you about how she dies. But for now she’s smoking, draws long into her lungs and enjoys it, like women in advertisements enjoyed chocolate, savoured, loved, delected, sensuated, enough of that (full stop)
She adds it to the pile and (an ellipsis as I drift again) the worst thing about a gunshot wound, if it doesn’t kill you right away: infection, necrosis, a body eaten away by time the direction of decay.
My fingers smell metallic, touch a touch of the barrel – it’s hot, as we’ve been blessed this summer with plenty of it from on high. All is lit with a blaze of shine-yellow so lucky, and I for one can’t get enough, ‘Can’t get enough of this sunshine,’ I say aloud, and the people around me say it with me, say it all the time for as long as the sun is with us, say it, if the heat burns you you’re alive, so say it. What else is there to do?
In the beginning we checked our phones constantly of course, for the time, for the news, but batteries die and one by one the lights go out, one by one you care none more about time, take in the sun and try to forget that your life has become a waiting, as you realize that your life was always a waiting.
Our pile is the biggest for as far as my eyes can see in daylight. The view had been obstructed by trees and hedges. Had been. Early days. Brambles stubborn are still there, to be hacked away or burned despite their bearing fruit, only to return back, hacked again. And so I see now further across the expanse and watch people huddled amongst tree stumps which will shoot out young tendrils for the spring, which we will reduce to stumps again. Content to be among the stumps, are they? Choices. To sit at the foot of a tree stump, or a pile of books. The two choices we can make. So lucky.
GG’s head a greyish cloud. And me, I sit on pile of books looking as if I have something to do. Catch sight of a gloomy figure walking towards us. Most people languish in the heat. People relaxed as anything, one of the better days. So why the gloom of this one? Closer, I recognize the shoulders sloped as an arrow – sharp, down-angled. The head shaved low. The lax chin of
since the beginning
long-time friend like summoned from my
recollection, remembered figure
flush with red
face a brow dropped
reaches my books and sits
purple in worry and wrinkles
claws at a shoe
reveals calloused heel
pressed to the brake?
a graze, or bite infected
blood, clouds under skin
and breathes out the man breathes
again breathes out
nose to knees and hands
pray each side of a head
broken into halves.
‘Stevi, are you gonna talk?’ I say.
‘Leaves talk, rocks, tree stumps, the burning fires talk.’ He scratches out that nasty heel.
‘Are you tired?’ I say.
‘That your back told me as you walked away, and arm looped into hers.’
‘Long time no see.’
‘Ah, some words are in the right order.’
‘Is why you’re here.’
He closes his lips, jaw tight and jowls droop. His pride. Me, I feel no pride ever. Then from outside our heads, high above, words ring aloud. Love is the hardest thing to do. Radio tone, air shake and a flock of quiet birds, grey striped, strange curled beaks, flee from the shrubbery, rough ugly bark.
In her brilliantly inventive debut collection, Vanessa Onwuemezi takes readers on a surreal and haunting journey through a landscape on the edge of time. At the border with another world, a line of people wait for the gates to open; on the floor of a lonely room, a Born Winner runs through his life’s achievements and losses; in a suburban garden, a man witnesses a murder that pushes him out into the community. Struggling to realize the human ideals of love and freedom, the characters of Dark Neighbourhood roam instead the depths of alienation, loss and shame. With a detached eye and hallucinatory vision, they observe the worlds around them as the line between dream and reality dissolves and they themselves begin to fragment. Electrifying and heady, and written with a masterful lyrical precision, Dark Neighbourhood heralds the arrival of a strikingly original new voice in fiction.
Guardian Best Fiction of 2021
‘Onwuemezi, who is also a poet, has said she thinks first of rhythm when she writes. When she deploys her considerable skill for sound and metre with purpose, the resulting lyricism makes for compelling reading...she has a rightful place in the tradition of surrealist, nihilistic writers such as Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Samanta Schweblin.... there are stories here that give shape to incoherence with a precision and style that is dazzling.’
— Baya Simons, Financial Times
‘[A] beautiful, vertiginous and enriching first collection ... there is a folkloric power in the way Onwuemezi combines clarity and mystery, evoked in a dramatic, memorable soundworld.’
— David Hayden, Guardian
‘Onwuemezi conjures nightmarish urban landscapes that swallow their protagonists. Each story in the book is like a window in an apartment block: lonely squares of light in the dark …The stakes are surreal but precipitously high, which is all that matters really. When you fall from the heights of heaven, you’ll hit the ground with a thud.’
— Susannah Goldsbrough, Telegraph
‘Dark Neighbourhood has arrived with a bang. It’s Gothic and mesmerising, but not so fantastical that the struggles within don’t have a fearful glint of familiarity, making for a chilling, lush autumnal read.’
‘By turns inventive, poetic, energetic, uncomfortable and uncompromising, these stories mark the arrival of a singular talent.’
— Buzz Magazine
‘Onwuemezi has a talent for world-building that a genre writer would kill for—organic, lived-in.... She does not provide a tourist guide to this neighbourhood. Instead, she asks us to enter a highly idiosyncratic dialogue, one that makes each new story, each new disaster, more poetic and interconnected than the last.’
—Split Lip Magazine
‘Dark Neighbourhood is a thrill and a challenge. Vanessa Onwuemezi is her own thing, but reading her I experience the same exciting, destabilizing sense of the world being shown anew – being made anew – that I get from Silvina Ocampo, Clarice Lispector or Dambudzo Marechera.’
— Chris Power, author of A Lonely Man
‘Onwuemezi is an exceptionally gifted writer. Her prose is bold, her vision singular. Unnervingly brilliant, Dark Neighbourhood is a phenomenally imaginative collection.’
— Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Checkout 19
‘With stories of ambiguous embodiments, slick, mordant desires and warping cityscapes, Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood offers a new poetics of storytelling. Lyrical clarity combines with formal experimentation alongside hotching, grimaced, and dazzling world-building: a potent, portentous, truly original collection.’
— Eley Williams, author of The Liar’s Dictionary
‘Onwuemezi’s writing is a breath of fresh air. This collection is a marvel.’
— Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters
‘Every sentence in Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood demands and deserves attention. Each story pulses and throbs with a precise and electric energy, yet there’s still so much space for her characters to explore the depths of themselves, and, in turn, ask the reader to do the same. Onwuemezi is a writer who approaches her craft with real rigour and care, and her voice is unlike any I’ve read.’
— Caleb Azumah Nelson, author of Open Water
‘I read this book with wonder and delight. Vanessa Onwuemezi is a mesmerizingly charismatic writer. Each of her stories is a mystery, an idiom, an invention.’
— Toby Litt, author of Patience
‘In disrupted and disrupting prose, Vanessa Onwuemezi achieves the dissolution of consciousness and slippage of omniscience found in poetry and in life. Her cool authority expresses itself in rigorous, original formal decisions and a detached, exacting lyricism. The seven stories in Dark Neighbourhood construct our condition as a limbo in which neither the waiting nor the waited-for offers satisfaction or resolution, but in which, as the book’s epigraph suggests, Night is also a sun.’
— Kathryn Scanlan, author of Dominant Animal
‘Vanessa Onwuemezi’s work makes legible the liminal spaces of contemporary existence: border zones at once geopolitical, metaphysical and – above all – linguistic. She sends English off on a great line of flight, from which it returns as poetry.’
— Tom McCarthy, author of The Making of Incarnation
‘Beautiful, burning writing. The strangeness and precision of the language not only make new worlds – with a scorched poetic and political vision akin to Samuel R. Delany’s best work – but bring this world into focus, in all its depravity, injustice and heartbreak.’
— Will Harris, author of RENDANG
‘Onwuemezi’s writing is distinct and strong enough to stand on its own. It’s a measure of her talent that the very contradictions in her collection – at the same time frustrating and enthralling, beautiful and ugly, florid and subdued – are what give it dynamism and strange force.’
— John Self, Literary Review
‘Onwuemezi has a talent for world-building that a genre writer would kill for—organic, lived-in.... Onwuemezi works with a confidence not only in her own writing, but in the reader’s intelligence. She does not provide a tourist guide to this neighbourhood. Instead, she asks us to enter a highly idiosyncratic dialogue, one that makes each new story, each new disaster, more poetic and interconnected than the last.’
— Connor Harrison, Splitlip Magazine
Vanessa Onwuemezi is a writer and poet living in London. Her work has appeared in Granta, Prototype, frieze and Five Dials. Her story ‘At the Heart of Things’ won the White Review Short Story Prize 2019.
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