I have been recommending this book as “The Kite Runner for Nigeria”, as it does what that book – and all good fiction – does, it opens your eyes to a world you may not have had much interest in or knowledge of. After reading The Kite Runner we understood more about Afghanistan and the news headlines began to make sense. After reading Tiny Sunbirds, the same is true for Nigeria.
Twelve-year-old Blessing and her older brother, the asthmatic and scholarly Ezekiel, live with their parents in the upmarket Better Life Executive Homes in Lagos. But when their father abandons them for another woman, they are forced to move to their mother’s village in the Niger Delta. The extended family is poor, living in a compound with no electricity or running water, but they make up for it in resourcefulness, ambition and old-fashioned unconditional love. And not a little humour.
Gradually the trauma of her parents’ divorce and the loss of comforts give way to a different rhythm and we are caught up in the ordinary life of Nigeria, with vivid characters. Here Blessing tells us of one:
“Grandma’s Efik friend Mama Akpan ran a business of getting girls fat before their wedding day. Grandma said she owned the last of the fattening rooms, as so many girls were worried about heart disease. She was Grandma’s best friend. Mama Akpan was rich, and she was famous for not spending money. She lived in Calabar, in a house with peeling paint, and did not own a car. People had stopped going to her for loans. She had no house-girl, or woman to wash her clothes. The only jewellery she wore was gold-plated, sent by her son, Akpan, in England, who bought all her gifts in the Marks and Spencer sale. Mama Akpan kept them in boxes with the labels still attached, wrapped in oversize plastic bags. She got them out whenever we visited.”
But the intrigues of village life shrink against a larger canvas of the predations of international oil companies, gangs of boy soldiers, and politics. In smaller threads the author examines Islam, female circumcision, education and the age-old themes of tradition versus modernism.
Tiny Sunbirds has just won a Costa Book Award and deserves to reach a broad audience, particularly an audience cynical about Nigeria. Warm, humane and sad, but ultimately consoling, it is an outstanding novel.
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