As with her lauded debut Stay With Me, in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s second novel domestic strife and the political tensions of modern Nigeria bristle against each other. Early in A Spell of Good Things, we encounter the protagonist Eniolá’s father staring at an almost empty tin of garri. Racked with shame at the poverty his family now find themselves in, Baba Eniolá scratches at the grains in the pot. How might such a meagre portion stretch to feed four mouths? A neighbour’s noisy radio intrudes on his spiralling despair with news of voter registration schemes. Baba Eniolá cannot help but glance at the vicious scar, running from his wrist to his elbow, acquired in the run-up to previous elections when his links to one of the candidates proved almost fatal.
Violence in multiple guises – political, domestic, psychic – simmers beneath the surface of the often restrained prose. In Eniolá, it manifests as a repressed rage. We first meet him as an obedient, able 16-year-old whose academic aspirations are dashed when an ill-advised government initiative promoting “progress” sees the sacking of all state history teachers, leaving his father out of work and his mother searching dunghills for used bottles to resell. Adébáyò empathically tracks Eniolá’s bleak downward trajectory as he falls in with “local hoodlums”, showing how the sustained indignities of disfranchisement and tarnished masculine pride lead him to make destructive decisions.
Creeping violence can shadow the 1% too. The foil to Eniolá’s narrative is Wúràolá’s story. Born into a wealthy and connected family, 28-year-old Wúràolá is a committed trainee doctor with a glittering future. But as part of her exposure of the failings of the Nigerian state, Adébáyò uses Wúràolá’s working life to hammer home the impacts of underfunding hospitals in this famously oil-rich country. Her steadfast depictions of overworked Wúràolá’s queasy exhaustion on the wards are convincing and charged.
Romantically, the situation is even worse for Wúràolá. According to the mores of the Nigerian upper class, Kúnlé Coker is an ideal match. In private, however, irascible Kúnlé is physically abusive. Self-doubt and entrenched social expectation edge Wúràolá ever closer to a marriage she foresees as her ultimate undoing.
The title of this novel indicates inconsistency: goodness comes in short-lived bursts. Perhaps this is telling about its overall character. As the protagonists’ stories are ineluctably drawn together, the compassion Adébáyò feels for her two protagonists is deep and her social consciousness commendable. Other elements are more hit and miss.
The two leads – understandably – turn in on themselves and become passive because of the pressures of material circumstance. But until the novel’s admittedly explosive final act, this often means that they are held at arm’s length from the reader, encased in fairly repetitive self-reflection and angst. This is especially the case for Wúràolá.
As a result, some of the peripheral characters steal the show. A local politician ironically named “Honourable”, although a relatively fleeting presence, is a vividly drawn creation with a rich and dark backstory. Oleaginous and almost Dickensian, his ruthlessness contributes to the energy of the novel’s concluding twist.
I also whooped for joy each time Adébáyò turned to Wúràolá’s cross-eyed, back-chatting younger sister Mótárá. She has a trademark insouciant “one shoulder shrug” that shakes off the orthodoxies of Nigerian patriarchy. Staunchly protective of Wúràolá, she acts as a kind of punky Cassandra.
Comedy and vivacity, with a more satirical flavour, briefly arrive in the form of a choric band of clucking and censorious aunties. They descend on Wúràolá’s lavish family gatherings “bearing complaints and coolers brimming with fried meat, live goats and exclamations, jars of Aboniki balm, rebukes and bags of rice”. Their misdirected attention – concentrating on “who is served fish rather than chicken”, as opposed to seeing that one of their kin, and indeed their nation, is in crisis—is tantalising. It’s a shame that Adébáyò sidelines the curious and exciting “good things” about her novel.
Publisher : Knopf (February 7, 2023)
Language : English
Hardcover : 352 pages
ISBN-10 : 0525657649
ISBN-13 : 978-0525657644
Available at Amazon
- First published as “A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò review – a nation in crisis” in The Guardian UK