Rating 5 stars
Abi Daré’s first novel is set in Nigeria and views that country’s patriarchal society through the eyes of a teenage girl who wants something better for herself. It’s a sassy, political, heartwarming story that gripped me with its heart stopping moments and its message of hope.
The novel opens with a quote from The Book of Nigerian Facts that makes clear that Nigeria’s oil wealth isn’t evenly distributed, and more than half of the country’s 180 million strong population live in poverty. Central character Adunni is one such person. Aged 14, she is sold by her father to a local taxi driver as a third wife, so that her father can pay rent. Even before this event, Adunni has experienced tragedy.
After the death of her mother, Adunni’s father breaks his promise to his wife and removes her from school, cutting short her education and changing Adunni’s expectations of life. She becomes her father’s de facto housekeeper and his most valuable possession. His selling Adunni into marriage is another broken promise to his wife, who did not want for Adunni the same life as her own, the one Nigerian society deems suitable for women, where marriage is the only possible route to fulfilment.
Adunni is self-possessed, opinionated, and engaged with the world around her. I liked her confidence in the face of her difficult life. She is angry and awake to injustice. She doesn’t want the life Nigeria has chosen for her.
I liked how Daré mapped Adunni’s progress through language. The book starts with Adunni speaking fractured English, something that adds weight to the sense of her frustration with and confusion about her life as the possession of a series of men. By the end, her English is more polished and she is nobody’s possession but her own.
I wondered about the poetry in Adunni’s early way of speaking English, whether it is an English transliteration of the Yoruba language. When Adunni joins her new husband’s household, she is shown around by his second wife, Khadija.
The sky clap a thunder; and it feel as if it strike me, right inside of my heart. I collect Khadija hand as if I am collecting sorrows, then I am following her.
Her husband’s bedroom is oppressive to her.
Even with the two lanterns giving light, the room is like a burial coffin. As if it is going to close itself around me and squeeze all my life away.
Her new life is one of abuse. As the new wife, she must sleep with her husband. The sex is brutal, perfunctory, without love. Adunni’s description of how she feels afterwards is that of a rape victim. The sing-song fractured English layers innocence over what she is saying, making her youth and inexperience all the more stark. Her husband’s first wife, Labake, is jealous and abuses Adunni physically and mentally. Only Khadija shows Adunni any compassion.
When tragedy strikes, Adunni has to flee, in fear of her life, even though she has done nothing wrong. She ends up being sold again, by a man who has no claim to her other than by dint of her being a woman in need of help and him another petty god of a man.
Adunni ends up working as a housemaid to a wealthy woman in Lagos. She is treated as being almost invisible by the woman, except for when she steps out of line and receives a beating, but her age and gender make her all too visible to the woman’s husband. She finds friendship with one of the other servants, Kofi, who makes it his mission to free this clever, funny, wonderful girl from the life she’s ended up with. His support of her makes the regular beatings, the starvation, the 12-hour days she has to work more bearable.
Through her employer, Adunni meets a person who helps her to turn things around, and encourages her to follow her dream. Tia is vastly wealthy, but has a social conscience. She doesn’t understand Adunni’s background, as evidenced when she gives Adunni a pep talk on positive mental attitude.
I know she is saying all this from the good of her soul, but it is not so easy when you are born into a life of no money and plenty suffering; a life you didn’t choose for yourself. Sometimes I wish I can just believe for a good life and it will magic and happen for me, just like that.
Tia is trying to become pregnant and her mother-in-law persuades her to undertake a bathing ritual that will encourage a baby to form in her womb. She agrees, but only if Adunni can accompany her. What Adunni witnesses isn’t some hokey superstition, but a physical assault on Tia, a whipping out of alleged demons, that leaves her bleeding. Adunni doesn’t understand it, and is sickened by it.
But there are words in my head, many things I want to say. I want to tell Ms Tia I am sorry I made her come here. I want to ask why the doctor didn’t come too? Why didn’t he come and get a beating like his wife? If it takes two people to make a baby, why only one person, the woman, is suffering when the baby is not coming? Is it because she is the one with breast and the stomach for being pregnant? Or because of what? I want to ask, to scream, why are the women in Nigeria seem to be suffering for everything more than the men?
These are good questions. The answer remains largely unspoken, briefly and obliquely articulated by Kofi as Nigerian women being seen as second class, even when successful, and dependent on men, even when those men are taking advantage of them, with his “Is it not sad that, in this part of the world, a woman’s achievements can be reduced to nothing if she is not married?”
The Girl with the Louding Voice is a powerful book that is lifted out of the traumatic by Adunni’s determination and self-belief. She is a child forced into awful situations and desperate decisions, who has no official agency over her own life, but who takes control of it nonetheless. I loved the hope in it, and can’t wait to read Abi Daré’s next book.