This is an interesting and colorful, but also disjointed and rushed, story of a young woman growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. It begins in 1971, when she’s 11, and ends when she’s 35. Unlike a lot of African literature, this book seems aimed more at insiders than outsiders (unsurprising since it specifically discusses this issue), with the result that the story and setting seem complex and authentic, although some of the dialogue was confusing to me as an American reader.
There isn’t really a plot here, unless “life happens” is a plot. When we first meet our narrator, Enitan, she is an only child in a well-off but unhappy household, and finds her new best friend in the next-door neighbor of whom her parents disapprove. Then Enitan goes off to boarding school; when she returns home for vacation, she witnesses something terrible happen to her friend. Then she goes to London to complete her education, becomes a lawyer and works there for awhile. Then she tires of England, returns to Lagos, and clashes with her father. Then she has a relationship with an artsy guy, but breaks it off when he cheats on her. Then…. well, you get the picture. There is nothing tying all these scenarios together, except that they involve the same character and that the challenge of being a modern woman in Nigeria is a prominent theme.
Despite all that, this isn’t a bad book. Atta can write. Her characters and settings are interesting, her ideas well-expressed and her scenes vivid. This book contains the seeds of at least three excellent novels; I wish the author had chosen and nurtured one of them rather than stuffing seemingly everything she wanted to write all into one book. Many of the scenes and situations in the book are fresh and painfully real, giving glimpses of what a great book this could be if the author focused in and fully developed a few of them.
Many readers have apparently disliked Enitan. Perhaps because she’s a modern-minded woman who pushes against her society’s expectations, but I suspect the real culprit is that lack of development. For instance, Enitan’s husband has traditional ideas about gender roles, expecting her to serve his friends drinks and not stepping in to help even when she’s grieving. And she is a well-educated urban professional with a strong sense of herself and her opinions. When no reason is shown for her obviously poor choice in marriage – she chooses this guy seemingly at random, without his first displaying any positive qualities – it’s easy for readers to become annoyed with Enitan’s subsequent frustration. How can we fully sympathize with her dissatisfaction when she puts herself in these situations and we don't understand why?
[Note: I have read no fewer than three books in the last few months with this same problem, the inexplicable marriage of our heroine to a guy with no redeeming qualities, who of course turns out to be a turd. All 20th century settings, all employed heroines with college degrees and a reasonable sense of self-esteem. Authors, I know you want to make clear who we're meant to root for, but healthy people don't just marry whoever looks their way.]
In the end, then, this book shows talent but not quite enough discipline; it has some strong plot moments and characters, but its plotting is disjointed - as, sometimes, is its writing, jumping from one idea to another without transition. I'm open to reading another book from this author, but I'd want to see some strong reviews first.