If there is one thing about Jacob Aliet that is always awake and in optimum condition, it is his imagination. He spins a yarn that loops and dips in ways I could never have imagined.
Book: The Levant Church Author: Jacob Aliet Publisher: Self-published Publication year: 2020
A young theology student, Ochanda, whose only desire had been to become a Catholic priest is kicked out of college and ends up in a Nairobi slum. To survive, he starts the Levant Church, a church that is modelled upon the Pentecostal church but also incorporates Catholic tradition, creating, in Aliet’s words, a kind of doctrinal chimera. To conquer the competition from other small churches, he makes it a feel-good, prosperity-promising entity and even considers staging miracles in order to attract worshippers. God, in his fairness, would understand that a man needs to make a living. (This bit reminded me how a high-school teacher told us that starting a church is a most successful get-rich-quick scheme in Kenya.)
In order to differentiate his church (again, from the pesky competition), Ochanda begins to make animal sacrifices at the altar, and in doing so inadvertently releases a demon, who emerges in the form of a femme fatale, Anita. Anita connects with Ochanda, and he, trapped under her spell, neglects his work as a pastor even as his congregation falls into disarray.
“She knew that any weakness, when properly manipulated, could be used as a sharp tool.“
As Ochanda seeks to disentangle himself from the enchantress, we meet a medley of characters, both in the present and in the past.
One of the people we briefly meet is Mzee Bakari, a character that only Aliet could have created. Bakari is an odd mix of a herbalist, a shaman and a shrink that Ochanda looks to for help. He employs the use of psychedelic drugs, which help to create an altered state of consciousness. He also looks into childhood traumas in the search for the root of Ochanda’s current problems.
“Demons feed off unmet needs and desires”
Mzee Bakari seems to suggest that our problems have a lot less to do with our external circumstances than we think.
A number of things about the story did not work for me, beginning with the flowery prose. In Aliet’s stories you will rarely be a witness to the characters’ quiet chitchat over a cup of tea; they are often in extravagant action – daylight explodes into rooms, eyes pop open and the light stabs them, shortly before they lock with another pair of eyes. I like my dramatic action to be like salt to my food, with just enough to season the dish. Too much of it overwhelms the story.
Whilst Ochanda is clear that he has sold his soul to the devil, we are not shown this. I would have liked to be a part of his struggle with it, to hear his considerations at the point he made the choice. In what we are privy to, he seems to be in a trance – Anita ‘happened to him’, he was powerless and had no say in the matter.
Anita’s mission in her return to earth from the underworld is stated, but her character and actions are not always consistent with this mission. Her powers or abilities are also sometimes inconsistent. She yo-yoes between being an invincible, unfeeling, strong demon and having human urges, fears and vulnerabilities.
Some intriguing elements that Aliet introduces seem significant but are left hanging, as if forgotten. What immediately comes to mind is Anita’s childhood and her family – a lot that is mentioned about them is not ordinary, and is never explained.
The story ends up not quite holding together, considering the combination of the plot holes, inconsistencies and hanging threads. The sense I got was that a series of scenes had been cobbled together, without intentionality in creating a unified story. Indeed, in the preface Aliet says that the story grew not out of a deliberate storyline, but from a short post on his FaceBook page Ndiko Aliet. Readers urged him to continue the story. He obliged, and the collection of the subsequent posts are what ended up as The Levant Church.
Aliet’s stories are gripping, and you never know what will happen next. His writing would benefit greatly from a “less is more” approach and a tightening to only include details or characters that are relevant to the storyline.
I hope he takes this on, as he is clearly skilled in the creation of memorable worlds.
Where to buy the book
Get in touch with Jacob Aliet on his FaceBook page Ndiko Aliet, to order a copy of the book, and the book will be delivered to you.
The Levant Church was delivered to me with a lovely bookmark, which I have gone on to use for my other books. What a touch of elegance.
In my last post I spoke about Kenyan book covers. Aliet makes the effort to design good covers; the editions I bought are easy on the eye and of remarkably good quality.
About Jacob Aliet
Jacob Aliet is the author of Magnolia Flower, Shoreline Evolution, The Levant Church and numerous short stories. His works have been published in newspapers, websites and academic journals. His varied interests include metaphysical naturalism, religious history and psychology. He lives in Nairobi, with his family.
I am a dark chocolate lover, red wine lover, but most of all, book lover who lives in Nairobi and is currently looking for love in Kenyan books.
Many, many years ago, as a student, my impression was that all Kenyan books were set in the colonial period, were to do with the fight for independence or handled the political situation in the country shortly after independence. I didn't think there were books that wrote current Kenyan lives that I could identify with. I am now seeking them out.