BOOK REVIEWS

An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon

“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”

An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content).
The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.).
In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.

I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour.
I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much.
My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not).
Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering.
Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’?
Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”).
Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt.
This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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