Guyanese writer Karen King-Aribisala is a regional winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her early work, combining short stories and poetry, has shown a willingness to cross boundaries and mix genres. Her début novel, The Hangman’s Game is a dark and brooding meditation on the stories we tell and the effect they have on everyday life. The book concerns an unnamed Guyanese woman living in Nigeria who begins to write a book based on a slave revolt in Demarara, Guyana in 1823 and the hanging of a missionary chaplain for his part in the uprising. Structured as a book-within-a-book, the narrative shuttles between a fictionalized 19th-century slave state and Nigeria in the time of the dictator Sani Abacha (contemptuously referred to throughout as ‘Butcher Boy’). Gradually the Guyanese characters bleed through into the parallel story and find their counterparts in Nigerian society, raising questions about the similarities between colonial and post-colonial misrule.
Unfortunately, a promising idea is swamped by writing that is overwrought in every sense of the word. The central conceit of the children’s game of Hangman is too slight to bear the metaphorical weight of the book and the novel smacks of artifice in that the superstructure is not only visible but obtrusive. In its pursuit of postmodern complexity the book uses its characters as narrative devices rather than allowing them to breathe. To borrow from Karen King-Aribisala’s imposition of stilted multiple meanings on her narrative, both the scaffolding and the execution of The Hangman’s Game fail to convince.