I agree with the other reviews that this is a fine option if you are doing a world books challenge and need a book from the Gambia – this is why I read it, and it’s certainly readable – but there isn’t much to recommend it beyond that.
Reading the Ceiling has an interesting premise: the narrator, Ayodele, is turning 18 and determined to get initiated into the mysteries of sex, so she needs to choose a partner with whom to do the deed. The three sections of the book follow alternate versions of her life as it unfolds along three different trajectories depending on whom she chooses: Reuben, an awkward classmate who likes her much more than she likes him; Yuan, a friend of Chinese descent in whom she is interested; or Frederick, the sexually experienced father of her best friend.
I was curious to see how the different stories played out, and there is a sense of place, though oddly for African fiction, Ayodele lives a middle-class life in terms of both values and material comforts, and there’s not much of a sense that she and her classmates are better off than those around them. Tracking the similarities and differences among the stories and the different ways characters relate to each other based on different lives and choices was interesting, and the author does a good job of showing different sides of those events that occur in multiple stories, avoiding repetitive content. I didn’t always believe the author’s choices, though: a character will die in a motorcycle accident in multiple stories despite having lived two different adult lives, or Ayodele will get a scholarship for London in one story but only for Dakar in another even though she submitted the applications before making her choice.
More to the point, though, the book is on the dull side. Ayodele’s feelings about events are often left unclear; instead we get bland descriptions of her surroundings, lacking in emotional content. And she’s not a particularly interesting character or one who inspired much emotion in me. While a character doesn’t need to be pleasant to be compelling, Ayodele doesn’t balance her lack of resilience or less-than-admirable choices with a strong or complex personality to keep readers engaged. In two of the stories she folds emotionally at the first blow, allowing an early failure or tragedy to shape and define her life, while in the final one she chooses to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term, though it derails her life, apparently just to spite her mother. She doesn’t seem destined to be happy regardless of her choices, though it’s hard to tell when the last two end without reaching a conclusion, leaving readers wondering what happens next.
Overall, this isn’t one I would recommend, though if you too have reason to read a book from the Gambia, then go for it. I’ve certainly read worse.