I ordered this book prior to publication in the US because my trusted literary advisor, Simon Savidge, gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, (also, it was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize, now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction). Simon’s recommendation was more of a selling point for me because I usually like the books he recommends, and have a history of not liking the books nominated for major prizes. It turned out to be well worth my time and effort. Since the book was primarily about how culture affects personal lives and choices, I learned a bit about Nigerian culture, particularly as it relates to marriage and parenthood. The names in the book were Yoruban, so I assumed that was the basis for the cultural circumstances presented in the book. The main character, Yejide, is happily married to Akin, who adores her. They attempt, unsuccessfully, to have children. After a couple of years, Akin’s mother starts to pressure him to take a second wife in the hope that she will provide the much-revered grandchild. This presents problems for the couple, as one might imagine, and the book proceeds to explore how Yejide and Akin and their family navigate their way through this difficult situation. There was a point where I was having trouble buying in to some of the plot directions and had to remind myself that I was not familiar with Nigerian culture. I did a little online research and found that in the context of that culture, the things that I had difficulty with were perfectly plausible.
And then there was the writing, which was at times, breathtaking, as in this passage, where Yejide is thinking about the things she has packed for her move to Ife and her new life there: “The things that matter are inside me, locked up below my breast as though in a grave, a place of permanence, my coffin-like treasure chest.” Like poetry!
Chapter 16 was one remarkable piece of fiction. Akin had started going to church again after his daughter was born. On that first day back, the vicar was preaching about the Lord’s Prayer’s cry for God to “Deliver us from evil.” As he looked out upon the congregation while listing the evils to which mankind succumbs, he paused at Akin’s face and looked into his eyes at the word drunkenness. Akin spent the rest of the chapter reflecting on the few times in his life when he had been intoxicated, finally deciding that drunkenness was not an evil that he personally needed deliverance from. Just when I thought I knew where the whole passage was going, Bam! Metaphorically socked in the face by the last line in the chapter. When an author can surprise you like that, you have to pause and say, wow!
Finally, Akin reflects on how quickly a life can change in this passage: “As I watched the milk stain spread downwards, I realized that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit.”
This author is 29 years old. I hope she is a prolific writer, because I am looking forward to the emotional journey I will embark upon with her next book.
Moomi, Yejide’s mother-in-law, fears that Yejide’s child is an abiku, a child that dies before puberty only to be born again and again. This poem by John Pepper Clark, a Nigerian poet, beautifully sets out the experience of the abiku’s family.
Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.
The first lines, “comings and goings these several seasons” refers to the child dying and coming back several times, frustrating families who think the child is there to stay, only to have him die. When Clark says “Do stay out on the baobab tree,” he’s begging the child to stay in the spirit world, for the baobab was thought to be the meeting place for spirits and witches and wizards who do their work in the night, and “follow where he pleases his kindred spirits.” Then Clark describes the modest surroundings the child has been born into, as an explanation perhaps for the child wanting to leave this world. The “knife scars” refer to the practice of scarring the infant so that he is so ugly, the spirits will not want him. With his scars, he will be recognized by his kinsmen as one of theirs when he is reborn. Finally when Clark asks the abiku to “step in and stay” he’s talking about the mother who bore him who is now so tired with his many reincarnations that her milk has gone sour, yet has nourished other children who have remained in the world to “reach the sun,” or grow up to adulthood.
The recipe I selected was Moin Moin, a Nigerian steamed pudding that Yejide served often for breakfast. I found several recipes and was concerned about removing the skins from the black-eyed peas, so I watched a couple of YouTube videos showing two different ways to remove the skins. In the first, the man removed them after soaking by rubbing the peas together in his hands, and dipping them into a pot of water to free the skins. In the other video, the woman soaked them, and then pulsed them in batches in a blender. Turns out, I was right to worry about this step in the recipe. I had no luck with either method, and had to go back to the book to search for another recipe. While no one in the book served a vegetable soup like this one, there were lots of meat stews and most everything had yams in it. I love vegetable soups, and this one was so different from anything we’ve had before, I decided to make it. The recipe called for palm oil, but I left it out because I didn’t have any. (Left out the quinoa, too, because one of us is not a fan.) Also, the scotch bonnets I bought were not, nor were they hot, so I used my homegrown jalapeños. Delicious!
VEGAN PEPPER SOUP
8 cups water, use enough to cover the vegetables
4 large slices of yam, cut into small chunks
1 red bell pepper, cut into small chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut into small chunks
1 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped
½ head cauliflower, cut into small chunks
½ eggplant, cut into small chunks
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 T chopped ginger, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 vegetable stock cubes
1 T curry powder
1 T dried thyme
4 T quinoa, optional, but adds a lovely smoky flavour
Salt to taste
Place the chunks of yam, peppers, cauliflower, eggplant in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil as you add the rest of the ingredients (herbs and spices).
Simmer on low heat for 35-40 minutes. Check on it to make sure the water doesn’t dry out and give it a good stir from time to time. Uncover and bring to a boil for a further 10 minutes.
Remove bay leaves and serve.