Freedom from the circle of life | Review of Booker-longlisted ‘A Spell of Good Things’ by Ayobami Adebayo

The Nigerian author’s contemporary tale has a distinctly authentic flavour that draws the reader in

September 07, 2023 04:13 pm | Updated 04:14 pm IST

Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, has grappled with the problem of extreme inequality for years. In her second book, A Spell of Good Things — longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize — Ayòbámi Adébáyò writes a contemporary story of two Nigerias. As she shows, deep economic fissures may run through a society but they can never slice apart the lives of the rich and poor; the two worlds always interact in mostly obvious, sometimes imperceptible, and sometimes devastating ways.

Eniola, a teenager, is the son of Baba Eniola, a history teacher who has just lost his job. The governor’s ill-considered decision to sack Baba Eniola and thousands of teachers for the “nation’s development” pushes his family steadily into poverty. Baba Eniola is forced to give up the markings of modest, middle-class success: his blue Beetle car, their three-bedroom flat with indoor bathrooms and a water closet, the family jewellery, even a VCR that no one will buy. He shifts his two children to a less expensive school, but continues to struggle to pay their fees. Soon, basic meals become a luxury. All this forces Eniola towards a tailor apprenticeship.

Author Ayobami Adebayo.

Author Ayobami Adebayo. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It is Eniola and his sister Busola who face the humiliation of their situation. The shame is visceral: when a thoughtful Eniola broaches the subject of fees each term with his parents, his “lips grow heavier and heavier”. Busola, on the other hand, is unrestrained and frank: she lifts her blouse daily so that her parents can see “welts multiply and climb over one another like worms across her back”.

Unable to face his own failures, Baba Eniola slowly withdraws into himself. As he often lies crumpled in bed, staring listlessly at a wall, the burden of providing even one frugal meal a day falls on his wife, Iya Eniola.

Yearning for respect

In the same city, Wuraola, 28, is the golden girl of a wealthy family. Her concerns are not fees, rent or food; instead, she struggles to cope with a hectic job as a trainee doctor and the unreasonable demands of her abusive boyfriend Kunle. For Wuraola’s family, marriage is the destination for all women. She yearns as much for respect in her relationship as she does for “freedom from the circles that had orbited her from childhood through university”.

Meanwhile, elections for governor are round the corner. At different times, Baba Eniola and Wuraola’s mother Yeye recall their memories of violence of past elections — a sign of things to come. Kunle’s father, who wishes to contest against the incumbent, approaches his friend, Wuraola’s father, for funds. This sets off a chain of events that lead to a shocking and rather abrupt end. The events are propelled unwittingly by Eniola and Wuraola: while he, obedient and hopeful at first, ultimately makes terrible decisions due to desperation, her refusal to fight societal pressure and live in denial leads to her own undoing.

While the plot may not be unfamiliar, Adébáyò makes A Spell of Good Things a gripping read with her restrained and sensitive writing and memorable characters. The story is mostly told from the viewpoints of Eniola and Wuraola, but the perspectives of some chapters belong to secondary characters, often women. While this gives the novel emotional depth and context, it also hinders the pace in parts. The exploration of a vast canvas makes the book a slow burn, except for the last segment, which is frantic.

What is particularly striking is Adébáyò’s liberal use of the West African language, Yoruba. Food such as akara, egusi, and ewudu are mentioned without explanation and there are entire sentences in conversations without translation. Surprisingly, this gives the book a distinctly authentic flavour instead of alienating the reader.

The precarity of life ties the two worlds together: while the poor limp from one day to another in despair and hope, the rich are encumbered, here, by societal expectations and patriarchy.

Wuraola’s mother, Yeye, says, life is “a war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things”. Adébáyò does not delve into “the occasional spell of good things”. But she masterfully portrays the “series of battles”, while also drawing the reader deeply into the cultural, political, and social fabric of Nigeria.

A Spell of Good Things
Ayòbámi Adébáyò
Canongate Books

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