Book: Measuring Time: A Novel

The cover shows not a world being turned upside-down, but two parallel worlds, inhabited by two twin brothers. Once close, a life-changing decision caused their lives to extrapolate to two diametric extremes.

A book about how the smallest choices impact the next three generations.
Set in Nigeria. Bookended by trees.

383 pages, ★★★★★

This novel starts and ends with a tree. In Measuring Time, only the trees stand still and watch three generations of war, disease and family survival. Everything else changes. The two trees on the cover represent the parallel lives of two twin brothers, Mamo and LaMamo, who live in the small Nigerian village of Keti. Once close, a life-changing decision caused their lives to extrapolate to two diametric extremes.

LaMamo and Mamo and begin as typical twin brothers, playful and mischievous. Their slightly different personalities complement each other: LaMamo is impulsive, and Mamo is cautious. The most graphic portrait of LaMamo and Mamo is when they poison a neighbour’s dog to death to steal its rheum, which they believe, if rubbed in their eyes, will let them “see ghosts”. Helon Habila describes the twins physically: LaMamo has a slightly elongated head that resulted from his difficult birth, and Mamo has inherited a “blood disease” (we later discover to be sickle-cell anaemia) from his late mother. The characters in Measuring Time are vivid and likable. As they grow up, trees are thrown in as the static reference frame throughout.

These twins appear together in the first half of the book. The third act is about half-way through, when impulsive LaMamo becomes a hired soldier, changing his fate forever. In trying too hard to change his life, he fights, travels and loses an eye in battle. His letters to Mamo are garbled and riddled with English mistakes. Mamo, however, the cautious one, stays much closer to home, and managed to change his life far more noticeably than LaMamo without even trying. On page 98, Mamo makes a speech on modernity is remarkably intelligent for someone with no formal schooling. The contrast between their youthful camaraderie in the dog-rheum incident and the lives of two totally disparate adults could not be more striking.

Compare Mamo’s intelligent ‘modernity’ speech…

“Some have accused me of promoting Western ways and making young people forget their tradition and culture. They point out to me the evils of modernity—as if tradition itself is devoid of evil…The rest of the world has science and commerce and prosperity. What do we have? Culture. Most cultures and traditions are devised by society to help it survive a particular threat at a certain time, and once that threat is over, that culture becomes anachronistic.” — Mamo on page 98.

…with this troubled, error-ridden letter from his twin brother, LaMamo:

“All the house are empty, it seems so much fighting has been done here, the village empty, and it smell of dead bodies, we even saw half-buried corpses in the bush. He showed us his house, it had been burned down by fire, and the church where all his family were killed…” — LaMamo on page 154.

Time flies in this book. In the first 20 pages, about three (short) generations pass. The characters are given so much history and justification for their character (such as descriptions of the relations between their parents and grandparents) that I feel I know these characters. I actually care about them. I think the extended character background is as engrossing as it is necessary to fully appreciate the wild character arcs later in Measuring TimeBy page 57, five of the ten characters we’ve been introduced to are dead. All those on Amazon who say the novel “starts slow” can shut up.

Measuring Time reminded me that the smallest choices can sometimes be the most life-changing ones. I learned that everything has a cause (因) and a result (果), sometimes effecting multiple generations. I also learned that you don’t need to run amok like LaMamo to change your life. You are often better off staying at home like Mamo and educating yourself: and that’s exactly what I’m doing. ★★★★★

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