BOOK REVIEWS

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the complex relationship two sisters who were once close but have become estranged as adults. Their mother, Kambirinachi, believes that she is an Ogbanje, a malevolent spirit who haunts mothers by ‘coming’ and ‘going’ (usually the child dies in childhood). After being born and dying a few times Kambirinachi decides to remain in the ‘earthly’ realm and goes on to become a wife and mother to twin girls, Kehinde and Taiye. After a horrific event drives the twins apart they embark on separate journeys. Years later, Taiye has moved back Lagos and now lives with Kambirinachi. When Kehinde and her husband come to visit them, the twins are forced to confront the reasons why they grew apart.

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

Through alternating chapters Francesca Ekwuyasi recounts Kambirinachi, Kehinde, and Taiye’s lives, from their childhoods until the present. The snapshots into Kehinde and Taiye’s youth and early adulthood are vividly rendered as they capture the places and people around them. Regardless of where the story was set—England, France, Canada, Nigeria—the setting was more than just a backdrop. Ekwuyasi conveys the Kehinde and Taiye’s loneliness as well as the cultural clash they experience once they move to other countries. The relationships and conversations they have with their friends, colleagues, peers, and lovers always rung true to life. Throughout the course of the novel Ekwuyasi touches on numerous interesting and topical topics, on art, intersectionality, sexuality, feminism, racism, and identity. The twins have been shaped by trauma they experienced as children, trauma they both try to overcome in not always successful ways. They are also grieving for one another. Their severed bond has clearly left a mark on them, so that even when they begin into their new lives loneliness weighs them down.
I just loved how realistic this story was. Ekwuyasi’s characters are authentic and fleshed out, their motivations and personalities are nuanced, the relationship between the twins is rendered with poignancy and empathy. By recounting the time they spent apart Ekwuyasi provides each sister with solid pasts, that is, real histories. With lucidity and insight Ekwuyasi writes of platonic and romantic love—queer love especially—of motherhood, of different forms of faith, of growing up, of trying to acclimatise to a new culture, of reconciliation, and of guilt.
As the title itself suggests, food is key in this novel. There are many scenes that feature characters cooking and eating. At times a certain dish or ingredient leads to a certain memory. These semingly quotidian scenes were really enjoyable to read and often they revealed more of a character or a certain relationship. Plus, Ekwuyasi serves us with some mouth-watering descriptions (my advice: do not read this novel on an empty stomach!).

Kambirinachi’s chapters perhaps didn’t always feel very cohesive. Whereas the twins’ chapters are grounded in realism, Kambirinachi’s ones foray into the magical realism. While we do learn in her chapters why Kambirinachi wasn’t a very present mother I think that this came across already in the twins’ chapters. Her perspective didn’t add a lot to the overall narrative, and perhaps, I would have loved this novel even more if it had remained focused on the twins and not Kambirinachi. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Ekwuyasi prose in her chapters. It had a rhythmic quality that resulted in some great storytelling.

“Something you must know is that Kambirinachi and Death were no strangers—no, but certainly not friends, either.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching debut by a clearly talented writer. If you enjoy authors such as Maame Blue and Zaina Arafat, you should definitely pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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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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Zikora: A Short Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once again showcases her beautiful in Zikora. The story begins with the titular character, Zikora, who is about to give birth. The father of her soon to be born child is not there with he left her months prior, after she hinted at the possibility of being pregnant. As Zikora goes into labour her mind goes back to this relationship, and we learn that she’s a lawyer who grew up in Nigeria. Her father married a second wife, something that has made her somewhat resentful towards her own mother (his first wife). Adichie conveys Zikora’s various state of minds as well as the uneasy relationship she has with her mother. Her love story with Kwame was particularly sad and Adichie succeeds in giving a nuanced picture of their relationship.
However much I liked Adichie’s calibrated and beautifully insightful prose, I have never been a fan of narratives that focus on giving birth or the early days of motherhood. I would definitely recommend this story to those who unlike me do not have qualms reading about these subjects.

edit 24/11: I am not a fan of cancel culture however I also do not want to support public figures who use their positions of influence to spread hate or under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ discriminate against the trans community. So no, I am not about encourage others to ‘cancel’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I do think that she should be held accountable for her comments. Until then…I am not sure I will be able to enjoy her work as I did before.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Treasure by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Treasure is a short story story that explores the darker side of Instagram fame. Treasure is an aspiring influencer who is quite willing to present a glamorised version of her life to her follower. She likes the attention, the compliments, and the devotion of her fans. User @Sho4Sure has become particularly obsessed by Treasure and one small oversight on her part will have dangerous consequences for both of them.
Treasure is a story that is bursting with irreverent dark humour that touches upon machismo, opulence, fame, obsession, and class. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer took me by surprise, Treasure seemed a bit more formulaic. Still, Treasure is quick and entertaining read that cemented my belief that Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author to watch.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala


Speak No Evil
by Uzodinma Iweala

x500.jpg★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars

Uzodinma Iweala’s prose is both swift and elegant; there is something compelling about the way in which he phrases things, there is a rhythm to his writing. This deceptively short novel is rather heavy going. The summary is somewhat misleading, making it seem that we will follow Niru throughout his life rather than for just reading about his senior year. The story focuses in particular on Niru’s sexuality, which he attempts to repress, mainly due his conservative parents. Niru’s opens up to Meredith, his best friend and fellow classmate at their privileged high school.

While I loved the language of this book – eg. the imagery, the descriptions – I felt that it was all a bit rushed, and ultimately, Niru was too much of a cypher. While Iweala portrays the horrible things that Niru is forced to endure – as in his father’s attempt to ‘make him straight’ – in an incredibly affecting way but, at the same time, Niru was never fully ‘present’ in his own narrative. He escaped his readers, and while I do understand that this might be intentional, it just made me feel slightly less involved.
Meredith was another ‘problem’. Her character disappears for a large amount of the novel; her role seems to be that of an ‘instigator’ for tragic events, her friendship with Niru seemed unsubstantial, flimsy, since she regards him as a high school crush rather than a true person.
And yes, I was pissed off by the turn of events. Meredith is a negative presence in this novel, and I did not care to read from her pov.
And what exactly does this story leaves us with?

Ultimately, in spite of its heart-wrenching and contemporary themes, this novel is undermined by its evasive characters and its frustrating storyline.

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