Revisado en España 🇪🇸 el 27 de junio de 2020
Thanks to Net Galley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review, and I am happy I’ve been given this opportunity.
This is one of those books best enjoyed by immersing yourself in it. It is one of those novels that you can see with your mind’s eye and you can imagine being right next to the protagonist (it is narrated in the first person by Adunni, a fourteen year old girl with a very special voice) as the action happens, and you’d love to be able to advise or help her, to protect her from some of the things she has to go through and to warn her at times when she does something foolish. This is not a novel constructed for an analytical mind, where everything fits in neatly; all the characters are consistent throughout; there is not a paragraph of excess information; and where clichés and common places are avoided like the plague. Reading it, I got the feeling that this was a book written with the heart (and the author, in the acknowledgements, explains her process quite well), and it pull at one’s heartstrings. It’s an emotional experience.
In this debut novel, we witness the coming of age of the main character, Adunni, who has to experience things that will be completely alien to most readers (we might have read about them, but, thankfully, many of us have never been exposed to them). Although this is no mystery novel, I won’t go into a lot of detail about the plot. There is child marriage, physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and servitude (she calls it “slavery without the chains” and it is quite an apt description), cheating and lies, poverty and desperation, and a fascinating look at Nigeria and at the huge contrasts there, from outright poverty to extreme wealth. We have a mix of rural customs and traditions with high-tech and modernity, and a society where women are still subservient to men, and where education, rather than a right, is a privilege, especially if you’re a woman.
Adunni is a wonderful character. She has lost her mother to illness when we meet her, and she has become a mother to her younger brother, but still misses her own mother, who instilled in her the importance of getting an education and having her own voice. Unfortunately, her father does not keep his promise to his dead wife and decides to try to solve his financial difficulties by marrying his daughter to a much older man (she is to be the man’s third wife, as he wants to have a son, and that has not happened yet). Nobody seems to understand her reluctance to marry, as many of her friends see this as an opportunity, their best option and their fate. You won’t be surprised if I tell you her marriage proves to be a harrowing experience, although she gets on well with the man’s second wife, who becomes a friend and mother-figure to her. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse, she has to run away and ends up as a servant to a rich woman in Lagos. I wouldn’t say she jumps from the frying pan to the fire, but there is little to choose from between the two situations. What makes Adunni particularly endearing is the fact that through all her troubles she remains optimistic. She gets scared at times, she freezes and does not know what to do (and often takes rushed decisions she lives to regret), she talks too much and gets herself into trouble often (even when she thinks ‘I shouldn’t say that’, she often says it anyway), but even though she does not always do what is best for her, she tries hard to help others and at times puts herself at risk to defend others. She is also eager to learn and will take any opportunity to try, sometimes with hilarious results. She is innocent regarding certain things (she understands how rural society and things in her village work, but is totally naïve as to the workings of a great city), and also gives everybody the benefit of the doubt, always thinking the best of people, even after they disappoint her time and again. She misunderstands many things (she does think her English is much better than it really is, and her attitude towards the language endeared her to me, also a non-native English speaker), but she is never afraid to ask or question what she doesn’t understand, even when her questions are not welcomed. More than anything, she is a credible fourteen year old, who thinks she knows more than she knows, who has had to grow fast because of her circumstances, but still misses and needs her mother.
There are many other characters, most pretty memorable. If we think of the story like the typical quest (the hero’s journey concept), there are some characters who get in the way of Adunni achieving her dream, many horrendous (her husband, big Chief, Kola, his husband’s first wife and Florence, her boss, although we get to understand that they are also victims of their circumstances), some misguided or unable to see beyond the conventions (like her father), and others who help her move on, like Ms Tia and Kofi. Ms Tia made me think of a fairy godmother (and there is plenty of Cinderella in the story and other readers have mentioned similarities to other books), but we do get to learn about her personal circumstances as well, and the relationship benefits both of them, as Ms Tia also learns things about herself in the process. Although the plot is not original, and yes, there are many similarities with other stories and books, the character’s voice and the way she touches everybody around her make it a compelling story and a delight to read.
I’ve mentioned that Adunni narrates the story in the first-person, but she uses broken English that can be jarring to begin with (as an English teacher I couldn’t help but keep correcting her grammar in my head), but I think it communicates clearly the character’s circumstances, and serves her well to analyse and wonder at the world around her. She is very witty and comes up with some wonderful similes and comparisons when she first comes to the city, a completely new experience for her. And she can communicate her feelings and describe them beautifully, even with her limited English. For example, at the beginning of the book, when her father is telling her about his plans for her marriage, she thinks: ‘But sometimes, like today, the sorrow climb out of my heart and stick his tongue in my face.’ Her mother’s advice to her is probably the most quoted fragment of the book: ‘Your schooling is your voice, child. It will be speaking for you even if you didn’t open your mouth to talk. It will be speaking till the day God is calling you come.’ And, if you’re wondering where the title comes from… ‘I don’t just want to be having any kind voice… I want a louding voice.’ I know some readers have found the writing style off-putting, so I definitely recommend anybody thinking of purchasing and reading the book to check a sample first.
Some readers have complained about the ending. They feel it seems a bit too neat, rushed, and it does not seem to fit in with the rest of the story, but this is one of these books where you’re rooting for a character, and a hopeful and positive ending is the minimum she deserves. As I said, there is something of the fairy tale in the story, but the character works hard, studies, makes a big effort, and grows and evolves, without losing her hope and her enthusiasm, and hey, I enjoyed the ending. It might not feel realistic, but this is not that kind of novel.
I recommend this novel to readers interested in learning more about Nigeria and happy to accompany a delightful main character in her journey. She goes through some terrible experiences, so this is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. Make sure the writing style works for you, but if it does and you like the sound of it, go for it. It will pull at your heartstrings, and you’re likely to find a new favourite author. I will be eagerly waiting for her next book.