Book Review: A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

I read about this book in a Newspaper and the way in which it was described drew me in. I recall, it was said to be a book about exploring the differences in culture between the Nigerian protagonist and those she comes into contact with within her Western environment. I bought the book with an expectation of something Americanh-ish. I think part of my problem is that I have been spoilt by Chimananda, and now expect all African writers to sound like her.

Well, Atta does not sound anything like Adichie, and that in and of itself is not a criticism of Atta. I’ll start with some positives.  I like that the main character’s name is not introduced until she is addressed by another character and we learn her name is Deola. Up until that point she is only referred to as “she”.

Deola is in her late 30s, single. This information is provided to the reader, but other aspects of her character, who she really is, remained somewhat of a mystery. She works for an international charity in London, but visits “home” which is Lagos for her late father’s memorial. Some of her thoughts and dilemmas seem more typically associated with an adolescent. I can understand this is some way, because in some West African culture, a woman has not truly become a woman until she is married with children. Yet I found it hard to connect her thoughts and feeling to that of a woman of her age and stage in life. Deola clearly has dissatisfaction with her life in London, but the reason for this is not made entirely clear.

What is clear is Deola’s love hate relationship with religion, and Christianity in particular. Now this touched a nerve with me because of the sweeping generalisations made about the Faith. Again though, I have understanding as to why “African Christianity” is criticised because I know from experience how distorted it is from the Christianity of the bible. Religion is certainly a theme in this novel, but I was not expecting it to be tackled in a way that could be seen scornful and disrespectful.

In terms of some of the other themes explored, I found myself asking at one point, is this a book about HIV and Aids? A bit like the MTV series “Shuga” based in Nigeria, (where almost every character either had HIV, or was about to catch it), was the thinking that, seeing as this is going to have a mostly African audience, I’d better do my best to educate them about the importance of being tested for HIV, seeing as most Africans are dying of Aids?

Perhaps not the biggest let down, another thing I found disappointing was that I could in no way relate to Deola and her privileged background. I had waited to find a novel that was based between Nigeria and London, and having finally found it, I couldn’t connect with Deola as I shared very few of her experiences. I did not go to an expensive fee paying boarding school and I do not have any friends who were educated at Harrow, for a start.

Fatally, the book included too many scenes that did not move the story forward, and an ending that leaves the reader hanging. Not hanging from a cliff as such, as that would suggest an exciting ending. More like hanging from a set of monkey bars.  I kept returning to the blurb to remind myself of what the story was supposed to be about. A love story? Deola’s love interest, hotel owner Wale, does not feature enough for it to be described as a love story.

With no lucid understanding of where the story is going, what is driving the main character, and what message the writer is trying to give, a Bit of Difference, was a bit of a flop for me.

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Book Review: Americanah

americanah

I must start by confessing that I actually finished reading Americanah a few months ago, and in the unwritten laws of writing book reviews, I’m sure there must be a rule somewhere about completing a write up no later than 7 days after completing a book. But I press on.

 

If I have to sum up what the book is about in a sentence, I would say it’s a tale of two teenage sweethearts, Ifemulu and Obinze, who having grown up in Nigeria, take different paths at the stage of studying at university, which leads them to experience life as foreigners abroad. Or I might describe the book a sociological essay opening up dialogue on subjects such as race and immigration, class, and politics. As one who enjoyed the study of sociology at A Level, the latter description is the one that resonates with me the most.

 

When Ifemelu goes to get her hair done at a black hairdressers at the start of the book, the description seemed to mirror so well my experience of hairdressers (and the experience of many other black women according to what I’m told), that I immediately thought “I’m going to love this book”. My prediction proved true about 65% of the time. For example, I agreed so much with the contents of Ifemelu’s blog posts about race, that I felt a little thwarted by the fact that I hadn’t written them myself! And even though I was born in the UK, my parents being immigrants, I could  relate to Obinze’s experience’s in London as an outsider and reflected on them with a slightly pained amusement.

 

I felt sympathy for Ifemelu over some of her early struggles in adjusting to American life, but ultimately I did not warm to her, or root for her. It forms part of Adichie’s style to present her protagonists as flawed, but in this case the flaws generated a mild dislike within me. It perturbed me because I felt that Ifemelu’s character was loosely based on Adichie’s; Ifemelu undertook a graduate degree in Communications in Philadelphia, and was granted a fellowship at Princeton which echoes Adichie’s own life. Did that mean if I ever met Adichie, that I might not actually like her? That’s a thought I’d rather not dwell on.

Chimanda

In the end I couldn’t root for the love story either, which I would like to point out seemed to only simmer in the background for much of the middle section of the 477 page novel. Parts of the narrative seem to drag on and I’m not sure the book really needs to be as long as it is. After nearly losing interest and irreverently flipping through what I will call the “Obama” section of the book (I don’t see what the big deal is about Obama), things picked up again on Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria, especially as the subject of Nigerian people returning “home” highly topical at this time.

 

Adichie has not surpassed Half of a Yellow Sun with this offering, but that would be a very difficult feat given just how beautiful the story of love and Biafran war is.

 

Nevertheless, Americanah is definitely worth a read, not so much because it is a stunning piece of literature, or a particularly romantic love story, but because of its subtle and not so subtle observations of social interactions, stereotypes, inequality, and social mobility. And for that Adichie should be commended.