Elechi Amadi’s premier novel initiated me into the world of African Writers. I remember being so immersed in the story each time I picked up the book, I was oblivious to everything else.

In simple language, Amadi narrates the story of Ihuoma, the beauty of Omigwe, whose character and conduct are beyond reproach in Omokachi and all the neighbouring villages. Her near-perfect qualities make her a role model to her peers and the ideal wife for most men who wish to take one.

Yet her comeliness does not exempt her from the inevitable trials of life. Widowed too early in marriage for most women, she has to struggle against loneliness and the advances of men. Her equanimity in such trying moments makes the respect she commands soar even higher. But the price she pays to uphold her reputation seems to increase with passing time.

As her prestige mounted its maintenance became more trying. She became more sensitive to criticism and would go to any lengths to avoid it. The women adored her. Men were awestruck before her. She was becoming something of a phenomenon. But she alone knew her internal struggles. She knew she was not better than anyone else. She thought her virtues were the products of chance. As the days went by she began to loathe her so-called good manners. She became less delighted when people praised her. It was as if they were confining her to an ever-narrowing prison.

Amadi weaves a tale of beleaguered romance between Ihuoma and Ekwueme, her new suitor, in a society where every facet of human existence is governed by the mores of the people and the statutes of their gods.

Omokachi village life was known for its tradition, propriety and decorum. Excessive or fanatical feelings over anything were frowned upon and even described as crazy. Anyone who could not control his feelings was regarded as being unduly influenced by his agwu.

The author’s use of imagery, folklore and West African proverbs, interspersed with the occasional humor of witty Wodu Wakiri the Wag, makes The Concubine a mélange of spicy adages, anecdotes, allegories and amusement. His elaborate dissection of tribal customs makes this book not just another African novel, but an exposé on West African culture.

The plot flows from communal living and good-neighbourliness into a tributary of greed, jealousy, potions and encounters with the spirit world in an era when people had to wrestle with deities to secure their destiny.