It may seem bizarre to say that a novel exploring forced marriage, violence and exploitation akin to modern-day slavery was one of the most uplifting books I’ve read this year, but that’s how I felt after I put it down for the last time. I had my eye on this months ago when it first came out but have only just got round to reading it, and I am SOOO glad I did. If you’re after a story of female empowerment and determination in the face of oppression then this is one for you.
This is one of those novels where I feel 100% justified in referring to the main character, Adunni, as the “heroine”; once you’ve read it you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her story takes place in Nigeria, a country I confess I know next to nothing about, but author Abi Daré was born and brought up there so there’s no doubting the authenticity of her voice and the portrayal of the society that treats poor Adunni so harshly. The novel begins when the girl, barely into her teens, is sold into a forced marriage by her father, who has fallen on hard times and wants the income her new husband will provide. Adunni is heartbroken; not only does she have absolutely no attraction to or affection for the middle-aged man she’s to marry, but her new life as a subservient wife will mean that her dream of going to school and eventually becoming a teacher herself is taken away from her.
It’s no great spoiler to say that when she arrives at the home of her new husband, her life is not a happy one. He already has two wives, one of whom is jealous, vicious and violent and makes Adunni’s existence one of misery and fear. The sexual realities of being a married woman are also incredibly painful to read, as revolting to us as they are to a girl who is far too young to be enduring this kind of relationship. However, the situation takes a turn for the worse when a tragedy strikes quite early in the book, and Adunni finds herself thrown from the frying pan into the fire, working for no money as a servant in the home of a sadistic, abusive textiles entrepreneur known to her cowed, bullied household as “Big Madam”.
It’s hard to believe that a story such as this belongs to the modern age, and it’s sobering to have Adunni’s tragedy laid out in front of us knowing this is not just a novel, but a reality that affects millions of girls and women in a society run very much for men. Yet there is more to the misery here than a fight for women’s equality with their male counterparts; the way in which women of different classes and generations relate to other is in many ways just as toxic. Adunni comes from an impoverished rural family, which immediately diminishes her chances in life and leaves her open to exploitation and abuse by both men seeking to assert their sexual dominance and women reinforcing their perceived class superiority. There are also clashes between tradition and modernity that play out in disturbing ways. Tia, who we meet later on in the novel, is what most readers would think of as a thoroughly modern woman, who campaigns on social and environmental issues and is very Westernised in her appearance and attitude. It turns out, however, that even among the adult population of Nigeria there is a divide between those women who are wedded to older, established cultural norms around motherhood and a woman’s duty to her husband, and those who are exploring other ways to live their lives. The damaging clashes between Tia, her family and other women in her social circle serve to highlight just how many battles Nigerian women are fighting and on how many fronts.
If this all sounds rather heavy, somehow it isn’t; I thought long and hard about how, despite all the agony, the book retains its optimism, and decided that (appropriately, given the title) it’s down to the endearing, hopeful and beautiful voice of narrator Adunni. Her aim is to make not just her own voice heard, but to speak out for all the other girls and women who are in her situation: oppressed, abused and denied the freedom to pursue their dreams on the grounds of their sex. The novel is written in her slightly broken and imperfect English (one of her goals is to improve in the language, and she learns as the story goes on), lending her an extra vulnerability but also an extra grit, her efforts to get to grips with the words she needs to use to tell her story a constant reminder of the uphill battle she faces and a sign of her determination to improve her chances in life.
There were a few times during the book when I wondered whether this hopeful tone was in fact an unrealistic representation of what the reality is for so many women like Adunni, and whether it was in some way diluting their individual tragedies to suggest there was a way out. By the time I’d finished, though, and given it some more thought, I decided it wasn’t as simple as that. Yes, Adunni is presented with a couple of lucky encounters and chances for escape that many girls wouldn’t be fortunate enough to have, but the author balances this out by showing us plenty of women whose endings are tragic in their different ways, some subtle, some less so. To liken it to a fairytale might sound flippant given the subject matter, yet that’s the feeling it left me with. We all know that real life doesn’t always have a happy ending, but the point of fairy stories is to make us believe just for a moment that happiness is possible, and the most awful of adversities can be overcome. Hope, the author is saying, not only keeps us alive but drives us on to better things; and in the most dreadful of circumstances nothing is more precious. Adunni, far from being an example of unrealistic expectation, is a figure of empowerment, of believing that women deserve better, that women can achieve and that women – sadly – sometimes need to fight in order to overcome the odds stacked against them.