The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

“There was so much lying all the time, particularly when you got together with people who were not Black. Bland observations about about schools, neighborhoods, and the words “kids” and “safe” and “family” tried to cover up a landscape of volcanos oozing with blood, pus, and shit.”

What drew my attention to The Days of Afrekete was the comparison to Sula, a novel that, even years after reading it, I still think about. Alas, The Days of Afrekete is not quite in the same league as Morrison’s novel. Structure and story-wise The Days of Afrekete shares far more, if not too much, in common with Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve. Like Shafak’s novel The Days of Afrekete alternates between scenes set during the course of a dinner party and scenes exploring our main character’s past, focusing in particular on her college experience. Both works are also characterized by an ironic tone, poking fun at the pretences of the upper/middle classes and highlighting just how hypocritical the characters they are writing of are. Alas, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Shafak’s novel I still preferred her brand of satire to Asali Solomon’s one.

Liselle Belmont, our novel’s central character, is enjoying a life of relative wealth. She’s married to and has a son with Winn, a white man whose political career has just taken a turn for the worst. An FBI agent has recently reached out to Liselle and implied that he has done something shady and may be prosecuted. Winn, seeming to be unaware that the FBI is onto him, decides to invite some of his friends/supporters over for dinner.
The narrative shows how adjusted Liselle has become to this lifestyle. She is incapable and or unwilling to pronounce correctly the name of her employee, Xochitl, who does things like welcoming the guests, serving the food, and cleaning after them. We also learn that although she had the opportunity to help Jimena, Xochit’s mother who also works for her, she chooses not to.
As this awkward dinner unfolds, the narrative takes us back to Liselle’s college years. At college she started dating women but soon found herself frustrated by the almost-exclusively white dating pool. She repeatedly promises herself that she will stop sleeping or entertaining in relationships with white girls. She then meets Selena, one of the few other Black students, and the two seem to be instantly drawn to each other. Their relationship doesn’t end smoothly as Liselle has a rather crappy attitude and Selena is struggling with her mental health. We later learn of how Liselle met and started dating Winn.

The story portrays Winn and his guests in a rather unfavourable light, but it does so in a way that reduces them to rather one-dimensional caricatures. Lisette was mean, uncharitable, and selfish. Selena’s character, especially her illness, was a tad problematic. She ‘feels’ things too much, so when she reads or sees stories about murder, slavery, cruelty, she is unable to distance herself from those events. Over the course of her adulthood, she is in and out of psychiatric wards and has only in recent times begun to lead a more ‘adjusted’ life.

While I did find the narrative amusing now and again, I felt nothing for Lisette or the other characters. It wasn’t necessarily because they were unlikable. After all, I just read and loved White Ivy, a novel that seems entirely populated by flawed, if not downright terrible, people. But the characters in The Days of Afrekete are just not as nuanced or compelling as the ones from White Ivy. Solomon’s examination of class and privilege too struck me as somewhat banal compared to Susie Yang’s one in White Ivy.
Sula does get a mention in this novel and the narrative does focus on the supposedly complex relationship between two Black women but other than that this novel is galaxies away from Morrison’s one. Lisette and Selena’s relationship feels rushed, so we never gain a picture of how they are together or what they feel for each other. Yet, during the dinner Lisette keeps thinking about her, making it sound as if she was ‘the one’ for her…to me it seemed that she never really liked Winn and that she only married him because of ‘reasons’. Knowing that the guy is about to be arrested she is like ‘well he sucks’ and for ‘reasons’ she misses Selena.

Even if I were to judge this book on its own merit (without comparing it unfavourably to Sula, White Ivy, and Shafak’s novel) I don’t have many good things to say about it. As I wrote above, it was occasionally funny. We get on-point descriptions like: “He had the look of someone who had aged out of playing the rich jerk in an eighties teen movie”.
But the characters were severely lacking in depth. Liselle’s story was boring, I didn’t really feel particularly sympathetic towards her, and I did not really care about the ‘drama’ with Winn or their awful dinner party.
We only get Selena’s side of things towards the end of the story and by then I was ready to be done with this book.
The way Liselle’s sexuality is portrayed frustrated me. She ‘was’ a lesbian but she’s no longer one now because she is with Winn. I also didn’t like the flashbacks that show how Winn pursued her even when he knew she was gay. And instead of turning him down, she decides to roll with it? I just didn’t believe that she cared for him so I had a really hard time understanding why she marries this bland guy. Also, why are the only two sexualities in this novel ‘gay’ or ‘straight’? Sexuality is not binary and I always find it irritating to come across stories in which a character had a ‘gay’ phase or ‘used’ to be gay. Being queer, bisexual, or pansexual is apparently not an option in these novels.

I wouldn’t necessarily not recommend this novel as I recognise that some may find Liselle less irritating than I did. Just don’t let that Sula comparison fool you.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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