This is one of those books that I just kept seeing around. It was all over bookstagram – like every third book stack had it in there. And maybe other books were similarly present, but I mean, just look at the colors on that cover: bold and proud. It does more than catch the eye, it jumps right into them. So this was one of those impulse library checkouts for me. It popped out at me from the shelf and pretty much forced me to add to my bag. Well, I’m not complaining.
I really had no idea what this book was about before I started. And after finishing, I compared what I had just read to the inside cover blurb and realized that even if I had read that, I still wouldn’t have really known what awaited me between the covers. This is the story of Yejide, a (when we meet her at the beginning) young Nigerian woman. She is just out of university, owns and operates a salon and is married to Akin, who she fell in love with at school. Things are good until, a few years into marriage, Yejide still isn’t pregnant. Now, the blurb makes you think that, when at this point Akin takes a second wife at the urging of his mother and to the horror of Yejide, this is the crux of the tale. It suggests that the threat to Yejide and Akin’s relationship is from this new wife. But let me tell you, it is much deeper, much more painful and much more personal than that. And I would argue too that any threats to their relationship are still not the crux of the story. For me, this is the story of Yejide’s personal journey and struggles.
This novel is written mostly from Yejide’s point of view. However, there are six or so sections that are told in Akin’s voice. Since they come up so infrequently, I wasn’t sure they were really necessary, and that perhaps they took away from the journey we are on with Yejide. After finishing, I have changed my mind and do think they add something. I’m not sure what, whether it is nuance to the full picture of Yejide’s character, an extra level to our understanding of the whole story, additional insight into Nigeria and its’ culture, or just confirmation that Yejide is a reliable narrator despite some evidence to the contrary. Perhaps some combination of them all. But regardless, I did come away with a fuller experience due to their presence. The writing itself is sparse and harsh, but still emotional and rich. The vernacular of the speech, which I have no personal experience with but trust was correct, really set the ambience more than anything else, even the descriptions of the environment/culture/traditions themselves. And I loved the little details, insignificant in the overall development of the story, but essential to keeping us in that ambience; things like “…when I was a little child, before my right hand was long enough to touch my left ear.” These are the small pieces that served as reminder that I was in a different space than one I know.
Yejide’s emotional struggles with conception, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and loss are the center point of this novel. The relationship she has with herself and the world around her, due to these struggles, is the relationship that most moved and upset me, as a reader. Much more so than her relationship with her husband, Akin. How far one would go, what costs one would incur, to save your family by having a child is explored from both Akin and Yejide’s point of view. Each of them makes decisions or keeps secrets from the other to have a child. And though those deceptions and extremes most assuredly create the breaking point in their relationship, there is so much more going on that contributes, and even sets the stage, as well. The power of cultural importance in dictating happiness (in this case, the importance put on motherhood), even over personal preference and interrelationship truth, is fascinating and, truly, universal. Although in different cases or places the dictates of culture may change, the power they wield holds consistent. In this case, the focus on having a child, almost to the exclusion of anything else that could make you successful as a woman in the eyes of your culture, is something that resonated with me deeply. Although Yejide and I actually want the opposite on this point, her to be a mother and myself to not be one, that does not change the pressure from our societies and the mental and emotional strain those pressures can cause. In fact, I was surprised at how much I felt parallel to her, despite our opposing desires. That spoke to me deeply and I was very impressed with the author and this novel for its’ ability to unite such opposing views in such a way. It is a sign, in my opinion, of great talent.
My one complaint is around the political pieces of the story. As I mentioned earlier, the descriptions of the environment do less to create the ambiance of the story than other elements. And this is definitely the case here. I do understand that culturally and historically the politics of the country are important, and they play a role in painting a picture of the country in general, I do not think they played a large enough part in this story to be worthy of inclusion. The little sections about the coups and military control and bought policemen were mostly background, or sideline, to the main stage for me. They were interesting, to be sure, but not strong or compelling enough, or interwoven effectively enough, to compete with the interpersonal and emotional issues that this story was built around.
However, overall, this is a forceful and expressive debut. It tells of the strengths and vulnerabilities of womanhood and motherhood in an incredibly evocative, yet perfectly unsentimental way.
Some of that gorgeous, sparse, unsentimental writing about love and loss:
“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”
“It’s the truth – stretched, but still true. Besides, what would be left of love without truth stretched beyond its limits, without those better versions of ourselves that we present as the only ones that exist?”
“…I realized that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us.”
“The days passed slowly, each minute pregnant with hope, each second tremulous with tragedy.”