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.

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

My Top and Flop Pick of Places to Eat

Back to one of my favourite topics: Food!

 

One thing I really wanted to do with this blog is review places to eat around London. I will try to every month or so choose a restaurant that I’ve been quite impressed with, and also pick one, that you may wish to avoid! This of course will depend on how often I go out to eat, and as winter approaches, I may just find myself hibernating at home, with the number of a decent Indian takeaway saved in my Favourites list on my i phone.

 

I have tried a few places for the first time in recent weeks, and feel a couple of them are worthy of a mention. My “Top” pick is Wahaca, located on Waterloo Road. It’s a fresh and vibrant bar and restaurant specialising in Mexican street food. The first time I went in I was early in meeting with a friend. Before you head down a flight of stairs to the main restaurant, there is a cute reception area with an unusual basin where you can rid your hands of bacteria. This was a good sign because it implied that diners had permission to get messy and eat with their hands. (I still chuckle remembering my “Miranda” moment, when led by my curiosity I almost fell into the basin when trying to wash my hands).

 

wahaca stairs

Moving downstairs, the atmosphere has a cool trendy type of vibe to it. The waiters, who are nice and friendly, tell you their names and encourage you to yell at them when you want service. The menu is so vast, that it makes it almost impossible to choose just one thing (that was my excuse anyway). It also meant that I was already planning my next visit in anticipation of getting to try out some of the other beautiful sounding delights, such as some of the Tostadas and Quesadillas.

 

I ended up going for a grilled chicken main with black beans and rice. It fulfilled the criteria I always look out for – was it full of flavour? Did it leave me feeling like I’d just eaten a main course and not a starter? Was it like something I’d never had before anywhere else? I also had side of plantain and sweet potato fries, which were shared between my friend and I (I feel I must stress). The plantain came wrapped in a tortilla with salsa and guacamole dressing. It was an interesting way to serve plantain, although when it comes to plantain, my only requirement is that it is fried. That being said, it’s the interesting twist on Mexican food that makes this place special, and with all the style, there is no compromise with substance.

 

My “Flop” pick has to be Byron. I had heard such positive things about the place that when my partner and I were trying to decide which one of the Greenwich pier restaurants to stop off at, I convinced him to give it a try, which wasn’t easy as he was put off by the poster outside boasting of “Proper Burgers!”.

 

Why would anybody do this?

Why would anybody do this?

 

There are picturesque views of the river and skyline on the left hand side of the restaurant. And that I’m afraid is as far as my positive comments can go about this restaurant. There wasn’t much to choose from on the menu, which seemed to comprise of burger, cheeseburger, or burger with cheese and bacon. I went for the burger. For something as simple as a burger, it would be hard to go wrong. But they did. The gherkin was strangely on the side of the plate, laid delicately as though it were some kind of dressing. Why would I want my gherkin on the side? Another grievance was caused by waitress recommending courgette fries. “That’s what everyone comes here for” she said. We ended up trying them, (though regular fries as too, as I wasn’t convinced) and unsurprisingly, I preferred the regular fries. Some things were just not meant to be, and sliced courgettes disguised as fries, are one such thing. When it comes to food, I’ll try anything once. But I’ll be saying bye bye to Byron, for good, as I don’t plan on going back.

Nice Views. Shame about the food.

Nice Views. Shame about the food.

  • Wahaca (twentyfoursevennoms.wordpress.com)

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.