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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Review: The Spider King’s Daughter

I’m always excited to read the work of new authors, such a Chinundu Onuzo, a fellow Nigerian, and from the sound of her name, of Igbo heritage too.

 

I found her first novel “The Spider King’s Daughter” intriguing, at times witty, and quite punchy. It is what I would describe as an almost love story between a spoilt rich daughter of a corrupt Nigerian businessman, and a street Hawker, converted from a life of relative wealth and comfort, to a life of hustle on the streets of Lagos, as a result of his father’s untimely death.

 

The novel is easy to digest as the story is not a lengthy one. This could be because of a technique the writer uses where she narrates an account through the eyes of the rich girl, Abike, and then narrates the same event through the eyes of the Hawker. By doing so the reader is invited into the world of both protagonists, and as such gains a deeper understanding of what makes them tick.

 

What could be said to be a classic tale of two star crossed lovers from the opposite ends of the social spectrum, is also a critique of the huge gap between the rich and the poor in Nigerian society. The rich in this novel are portrayed as obnoxiously rich. It almost seems to be a trend that wealthy characters featured in novels set in Nigeria, have obtained their wealth through corrupt and criminal conduct. Having been born and brought up in the UK, I cannot comment on whether this representation is true to life, though my instinct tells me that it is not far removed.

 

lagos busy street

 

The picture that we are to see is that in Nigerian society, there is a sickening disregard for the poor. The Hawker is not even given a name, as though indicating that the name of one who has no wealth is of no significance. The way Abike’s father treats those he sees as beneath him (including his own children), is particularly disturbing. At the end of the novel, when the reader comes to the realisation that there is not going to be some grand reversal of fortunes, the alarming sense of inequality and injustice becomes almost depressing.

hawkers-nigeria

 

 

A source of some light-hearted relief is the character of Mr T, the half-baked homeless man with one arm, who has an unlikely friendship with the Hawker. He provides most of the comical content of the book, with his wild stories and eccentricity. Alongside the comedy, the overly dramatic narrative has the ability to make you feel that the stories and characters are far removed from reality, even if the truth is that they are not.

 

For another interesting take on this novel check out: http://weeklytrust.com.ng/index.php/my-thoughts-exactly/14022-playing-the-nollywood-game-in-chibundu-onuzo-s-novel-the-spider-king-s-daughter