2014 in African fiction: 5 reviews

In March 2014, I started tracking my reading for the first time. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but had never quite managed to get it together which is rather odd given my tendency to be a compulsive list maker. Here are five books that I read for the first time in 2014, and a brief review of each (no spoilers). All five of them are highly recommended.

Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko
The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo
Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda
Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso
Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko
Kilanko
“No one told us that sometimes evil is found much closer to home, and that those who want to harm us can have the most soothing and familiar of voices.”.

This debut novel by Nigerian-Canadian author Yejide Kilanko follows the story of Morayo, the main character, from her early childhood through to adulthood. The book is about dealing with sexual violence, and the ways in which familial relationships are forever changed when a family (and society) struggles to address such violence. It is a difficult book to read, particularly as it does an excellent job of portraying the ways in which women are encouraged to let their experiences become shrouded in shame and silence (preferably theirs) to avoid causing family rifts or to ruin social occasions by committing the unspeakable sin of making things “uncomfortable”, especially for the perpetrators of violence. There is hope, however, in many of Morayo’s choices to protect herself, and also in her close relationship with her aunt, Morenike, who provides protection and a feeling of community and solidarity with other women. This is an excellent story told beautifully, likely to incite a strong emotional reaction, especially for people who have experienced sexual violence.

You can find out more about Yejide Kilanko here, or follow her on Twitter

The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo
OnuzoChibundo Onuzo’s novel is difficult to characterise. A few reviews have described it as some sort of African Romeo and Juliet, but it seems an inept and lazy description by non-African reviewers who can’t understand a novel set in a context they are unfamiliar with (and who quite frankly, sound they like they have never read Romeo and Juliet). At its most basic, The Spider King’s Daughter is about a tentative romance between Abike, the spoiled daughter of a very wealthy man, and Runner G, a street hawker. While the attraction presents as a romantic one, there are layers of complexity brought by their differing socio-economic circumstances which positions Abike’s captivation with Runner G as similar to that of a scientist staring down a microscope at a new species of bug with detached fascination. As their relationship deepens, however, it becomes threatened by family secrets which force them to re-examine the feasibility of such a relationship.

Onuzo does an excellent job of describing the flavour of Lagos, and the story is told with a subtle wit that is very engaging. At first, the narration was a little hard to follow as the narrator’s voice switches between the two main characters (both in first person) and it took me some time to figure out that the italicised text was to be attributed to Abike.

You can find some of Chibundu Onuzo’s opinions and analysis on current events here, or follow her on Twitter.

Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda
Mda
“[Camagu] discovered that the corporate world did not want qualified blacks. They preferred the inexperienced ones who were only too happy to be placed in some glass affirmative-action office where they were displayed as paragons of empowerment. No one cared if they ever got to grips with their jobs or not. All the better for the old guard if they did not. That safeguarded the old’s guard’s position.”

Zakes Mda is a wonderful South African author, activist, artist, poet and political commentator. His novel Heart of Redness juxtaposes life in post-apartheid South Africa with anti-colonial resistance in the mid-19th century. The book presents a fictionalised account of Nongqawuse, a prophetess of the amaXhosa people, who prophesied that if the amaXhosa slaughtered all their cattle and let their agricultural land lie fallow, on a specific day their ancestors would arise from the dead and push the white settlers into the sea. That day came and went (as did several other days), and the result was devastating. The present day story centers on Camagu, a South African man who has returned from 30 years of exile in the United States to find that he does not fit comfortably within post-apartheid South Africa. The narrative follows one family over generations, who were split into the Believers and Unbelievers during the time of Nongqawuse, who are still at war with each other, and who are representations of the battle between tradition and modernity.

The tale crafted by Mda is part political commentary, part love story. The narrative can be confusing as there are many characters with the same names from different generations, and it is not always immediately clear which time period you are in, but it does get easier the further into the book you get.

You can read more about Zakes Mda here, or follow him on Twitter.

Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso
OmotosoBom Boy is quite a strange book, probably because the main character, Leke is very odd. Leke is a young man living in Cape Town, given to very peculiar behaviour such as visiting doctors so that he can feel the touch of another human being. A sense of loneliness and sadness pervades the book, which is a slow unravelling of the story of Leke’s origins told through letters written by his Nigerian father whom he has never met. Bom Boy is essentially about a search for identity and meaning, as Leke is a confused young man trying to find something – he just doesn’t know what. The book is populated with interesting and sympathetic characters, and Omotoso uses elements of magic realism which gives the story a sort of fairy-tale feel.

Watch an interview with Yewande Omotoso, or follow her on Twitter.

Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
Adichie
“Whiteness is the thing to aspire to. Not everyone does of course but many minorities have a conflicted longing for WASP whiteness, or more accurately, for the privileges of WASP whiteness.”

Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Americanah, is an extremely uncomfortable book to read. Judging by the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, many would agree with me. Adichie’s earlier two books were set in Nigeria, and were primarily about the dynamics of Nigerian society. When Adichie turns her laser-sharp gaze northward and offers an incisive political commentary on race, gender, class and legal status (immigration) in the United States, many US readers were rather put-out. Online reviews are awash with readers comparing Americanah unfavourably to her two earlier novels, calling the protagonist whiny and obsessed with race, and condemning her status as an undocumented migrant (that would be the main character, not the author).

The story is told through the eyes of two characters: Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in the United States who is about to return home, and Obinze, a wealthy Nigerian man who dated Ifemelu for several years. The relationship between the two main characters started when they were in school, and despite intending to remain together for the rest of their lives, they have taken very different paths in their 20s. Ifemelu struggles to make a life for herself in the US as she is confronted with her unexpectedly low status as a black, African immigrant. She does, however, finally manage to position herself as an expert observer and analyst of US race relations. Meanwhile, after some time in the United Kingdom where he has experienced his own socio-economic exclusion, Obinze returns to Nigeria where he builds a successful, although unsatisfying, life for himself. Ifemelu and Obinze have never forgotten each other, and as she is returning home, their powerful emotional connection will test their carefully constructed lives.

Americanah is a forceful commentary on power and identity in the US and beyond, and if the characters resonate with you, it packs quite an emotional punch.

Read an interview with Chimamanda Adichie, in which she discusses Americanah and US readers’ reactions to it, or find out more about her here.

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