A novelist bridges the class divide in contemporary Nigeria — Aamina Ahmad
During the pandemic, my walking path in Berkeley, Calif., trailed past the Seabreeze encampment where a number of the city’s homeless population were living. Various municipal initiatives sprang up to try to protect this and other encampments from Covid-19, but these came on the heels of longstanding tensions between the housed and unhoused in the Bay Area — tensions that had, for the city, largely taken the shape of concerns about trash and safety. Accompanying these concerns I sensed an undercurrent of distaste: The encampments were unsightly, ugly, embarrassing. Locals wanted to help these members of their community, but more than that they really wanted them gone. Just over a year later, they were.
Set in contemporary Nigeria, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s second novel, “A Spell of Good Things,” is a pointed warning about the dangers of choosing to look away from the deep economic fissures that run through a community. Whatever we might do to distance ourselves from the destitute — taking refuge in tidy suburbs, expunging the poor from our scenic trails — in any society lives can and do intersect. These intersections expose the flimsiness of the illusions the privileged cling to, that they can both preside over and hide from the impoverished, and that there is no cost to doing so.
Adébáyò established her storytelling prowess in her 2017 debut, “Stay With Me,” a gripping tale of a marriage undone by a series of secrets and betrayals. In this compelling follow-up, Adébáyò’s hand is just as deft, but her canvas is more expansive. Following the lives of two families from opposite sides of the tracks in an unnamed city in southwestern Nigeria, the story weaves between the contrasting worlds of two young people who first cross paths loosely, incidentally, but whose choices — and lack thereof — knot their destinies together over time. By the end, the intricacy of the novel’s structure comes to feel both unexpected and inevitable, building toward a final devastating convergence.
An early, bracing scene introduces us to 16-year-old Eniolá as he endures the first of many humiliations in the story: A vendor, one of his father’s creditors, spits at him in the marketplace.
The assault is quick, but the scene unfurls over several pages, the accumulation of detail allowing us to inhabit the depth of Eniolá’s physical and emotional injury. Where a raw, dynamic storytelling energized Adébáyò’s prose in “Stay With Me,” here the graceful, stately quality of the sentences evokes restraint, avoiding sentimentality: “No,” the boy thinks. “He wouldn’t ask any of the men around him to confirm if his face still had any streaks. He wouldn’t.”
From here Eniolá’s situation continues to deteriorate. He is the eldest child of a schoolteacher father, with high hopes of achieving similar levels of professional, middle-class success, when sudden misfortune in the form of teacher layoffs ushers the family’s slow descent into poverty. His mother now scours dunghills for plastic bottles and tin she can sell to provide her family with one meal a day, if that. His father, meanwhile, is more or less incapacitated by the emotional toll of long-term unemployment, spending most of his time in bed, staring at the wall.
Eniolá understands that the kind of life he aspires to can be achieved only through a university education, not through the tailoring apprenticeship he is barely maintaining or the government schools where teachers rarely show up. His only hope is to graduate from the second-rate private school his parents cannot afford, where children are beaten when their school fees are late. While the novel outlines the impossible choices families must confront daily — eat, pay rent or pay school fees? — it is the social and psychological hardships that we feel most viscerally: Every term, Eniolá’s “lips grew heavier and heavier whenever he wanted to discuss his school fees with his parents.” Parents agonize over giving their children something better, only to be haunted by the shame that comes with admitting defeat, or with giving up. Eniolá’s father “often seemed slightly surprised and disappointed to have woken up,” Adébáyò writes.
In contrast, Wúràolá, a 28-year-old hospital resident in the same city, is overworked and subject to the pressures of an underfunded health service; but because she is affluent and well educated, she exists in an altogether different reality. Despite her promising medical career, the women in her family can think of little worse than her remaining unmarried at 30, and worry that Wúràolá’s boyfriend, Kúnlé, a TV newscaster and the son of a well-to-do surgeon with political aspirations, is wasting her time. The reader instead worries about his controlling and intrusive behavior. If poverty closes doors again and again, financial security does not always offer protection.
Both families have experienced the precarity of the middle class. The misfortunes Wúràolá’s mother, Yèyé, experienced growing up have taught her that the world is a harder place to survive than Wúràolá, born into wealth, realizes. Yèyé “had never been able to shake the sense that life was war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things.” And so, with the privilege afforded to her by marrying Wúràolá’s wealthy father, Yèyé lives her life preparing for a rainy day. And Eniolá’s family, robbed of their middle-class income in an instant, lurches from one crisis to the next, stuck in an endless present. Eniolá can work toward building his own professional future, but Yèyé knows what he does not: that “real wealth was intergenerational, and the way Nigeria was set up, your parentage would often matter more than your qualifications.”
The plot is accelerated by the upcoming elections for governor, in which Kúnlé’s father is challenging the unscrupulous incumbent — a high-stakes political race that draws the novel’s main players to its center. The device of the sleazy politician is not unfamiliar; trust in our leaders does not seem especially high anywhere at the moment. But Adébáyò’s timely novel — Nigerians will vote in a general election at the end of February — indicts a political class that shows little concern for tackling their constituents’ dire realities, and even makes effective use of those difficulties for their own ends. As this book shows, the resulting political factionalism plays out most tragically in the streets, injuring those far removed from power and fueling a culture where political violence against ordinary people has become normalized.
In one sense, this story line offers little ambiguity; its villains are predictably corrupt, the cruelty of their methods operatic. But Adébáyò humanizes those sucked into the vortex of that power with a striking compassion — the characters’ misjudgments and delusions are deeply and empathetically imagined, wholly alive. The outcome of these errors binds Eniolá’s and Wúràolá’s fates forever, the collision of their worlds underscoring their shared frailty.
Readers around the world may want to turn their gazes from the poor on their neighborhood sidewalks, but the inescapable truth is that the inhabitants of any place remain bound to one another. Not just by space or circumstance, but by our shared vulnerability to the whims of socioeconomic forces, by the recognition that another human’s longings are not so different from our own.
-Aamina Ahmad is the author of The Return of Faraz Ali.