by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. Review.
A Spell of Good Things finally arrives after a spell of great expectation. Many are still reeling from Stay With Me, but be prepared for more devastation. Ayọ̀bámi’s second novel is an even more explosive portrait of family life, again beleaguered by trauma and loss, with two families this time in very different social and financial circumstances.
But this story seems to probe much deeper into all of Nigeria. So many aspects of society are exposed and challenged. An essential theme is the inequality experienced by the haves and the have-nots, with alternating and ultimately inextricably linked tales, crashing into each other in a soul-destroying climax.
The contrasts are stark across the social divide: hunger and poverty v affluence and excess. Gold for some, begging for many. Inequality in education is rife. If you have the money to go to the right kind of school, opportunities abound. If not, it’s time for corporal punishment; Eniolá gets so many beatings.
Then there are the problems for all. Even Wúràolá, the wealthy junior doctor, struggles with shocking hospital conditions and lack of resources. Political skulduggery and brute force disturb everyone. This is timely with the Nigerian election having just taken place and reported violent interventions. And then there is family in-fighting and the horror of domestic abuse.
All of this is in line with familiar depictions of Nigeria in many forms. But not everything here is uniquely Nigerian. Social divides are prevalent throughout the world, either in pockets or expanses. Political corruption is common in the UK, though in a different guise; not as brutal as in Nigeria. Inequality in the education system and poverty also exist in the UK, and in many countries. The not-so-good things affect everyone. But there is inescapably a very particular Nigerian slant on all of the afflictions in this novel.
There is also a lot of celebrating as well as all the suffering. And yet, in all the social conventions and rivalry, there is still much tension. Everyone gets involved in everyone else’s business. And in their personal lives. There is so much wahala, especially in family life. People get so easily aggrieved by the slightest thing. So many aunties seek to influence Wúràolá and her mother Yèyé, and their input is not always helpful. The men typically stay in the background, scheming, or dodging responsibility when needed, only to step in when they feel they simply have to exercise their egos and dominate.
Every subject is fair game. Everyone feels free to comment on and meddle in other people’s lives. It would be nice to believe they genuinely have the best interests of others at heart, but this seems rare. Mótárá and Bùsólá, both younger sisters, stand out in their love and support for their respective siblings, but even here relationships are strained.
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (photo © Katharine Anne Rose)
And then we have a series of set pieces that go beyond everyday disagreements. The physical and mental abuse that Wúràolá suffers at the hands of her fiancé Kúnlé are terrifying.
The kidnapping of two beloved family members – one from each family – results in the ultimate extreme in human suffering, having started with the harmless-seeming grooming of boys who just want to survive. Eniolá cannot escape in the end, having unwittingly sold his soul for money for school fees and bags of rice to stay alive.
The story hovers between fortitude and the triumph of the human spirit, as far as it can last, and deep sorrow, with a side dish of bewilderment. There is a moment where Bùsólá thinks her father has died, until he wakes up looking disappointed, and
“she wondered if he spent so much time in bed because he was hoping to sleep his way out of this world”.
There is a brief second where Eniolá smiles, when trying to pretend to Aunty Caro and his fellow apprentices that everything is fine:
“Eniolá arranged his face into what he hoped resembled a smile”
Nothing is fine anymore at this point.
A Spell of Good Things will break your heart. The families, now connected in the worst and most unexpected of ways possible, share a bleak future. They have no hope, just a cauldron of despair full to the brim. All the hostilities, the jostling for position, the greed, the violence boil up and spill over, leaving nothing good for anyone. The social niceties are long gone. Life is not fair. Life is hardly even bearable.
The only good things that appear in this story are fleeting and unsustainable. In one sense the money, the food, the opportunities for Eniolá are magical. But the free lunch is nothing of the kind. The parties and the moments of passion for Wúràolá are short-lived and supplanted by vicious attacks behind closed doors. The family’s excitement disappears when a long-planned, joyful ceremony never takes place. All that glitters is not gold. And magic comes with consequences.
With Ayọ̀bámi at Waterstones, Picadilly
© Eddie Hewitt 2023
See the Connected Cultures review of Stay With Me
Canongate: A Spell of Good Things