A Bit of Difference
REVIEW: Jonathan Amid
Protagonist Deola Bello, born into affluence in Ikoyi, Nigeria, finds herself living in a London “overrun with immigrants”. An expatriate working for an international charity, Bello is thirty-nine, single, wary of men and marriage and disillusioned with her current prospects and co-workers.
As auditor in service of European capital, Deola evaluates the merits of various funding concerns involving Africans in need. Neither fully at home in London nor unaware of the ethical quandaries attendant on being an African that “judges” African others, Deola travels home for the fifth anniversary of her father’s passing. Her life choices and outsider’s gaze will be under intense scrutiny from her own family, and Deola’s own perceptions about the world and herself will come into sharp relief.
Moving between Atlanta, London and Lagos, the first part of this slow-burning yet searingly perceptive novel (Atta’s third) is a carefully hewn tapestry of Deola’s impressions, opinions and interactions with co-workers and friends.
Atta’s prowess in terms of characterization is most evident in the three friends that Deola spends time with in London: Subu, trained at the same school of accountancy as Deola in Nigeria, refuses to return home. Her born-again Christian status allows Atta a platform to critique the rise of different forms of religious fundamentalism both in London and Nigeria (just think of prophet TB Joshua), and Deola’s impressions (and skepticism) are acidly funny.
Equally engaging is the portrayal of the misanthropic writer Bandele, admirer of James Baldwin and JM Coetzee, whom Deola knows from home. Sexually fraught and depressed, Bandele feels out of place in London. His moving portrayal and poignant interactions with Deola reinforce Atta’s rapport with the underdog, and notable are the scathing barbs after the prize-giving for African writing when Bandele loses out to another writer deemed to need it more. Tessa, rounding out the trio of Deola’s friends, has known her since boarding school, and considers a move to Australia with her husband. How Deola relates to Tessa, her choices and the roundedness of Tessa’s character, are further highpoints.
If the novel’s first part deliberately limits its cast of characters, it must be categorically noted how Atta simultaneously and to good effect creates depth from a wide array of digressions, all from Deola’s perspective, yet told in the third person. With an effect that combines distance and intimacy, immediacy and aloofness, these reflections – some more banal than others – allow for fascinating insights into the myriad of influences that shape and foster individual (migrant) subjectivity.
The wide variety of discourses around Africa – a continent seemingly always under symbolic (re)construction, with all of its colour and contradictions emanating from spheres of culture, commerce, civil war, tribalism, racism, minorities and factionalism, contradictions, abuses of power, tradition and modernity – are interrogated in observations sharp and often brutal. Atta’s lean, limber prose moves far beyond a mere “anthropological curiosity”, a phrase that Deola uses at one point.
One such digression sees Nigeria described as a country where even the ‘passive aggressive’ land is stubbornly “too damn African”: When “a car dealership opens… the road in front of it splits, as if to say, ‘I told you I couldn’t handle it’.”
Linguistic flights of fancy are largely dispensed with, yet thoughtfulness remains: “Once in a while, Africans will be confronted with the notion that Africans are disposable and of much consequence to humanity as waste material. This may not be personal… Their daily trauma is trying to survive systems that did not start off with their continuity in mind.”
The neat trick of the novel’s second half, somewhat more formulaic, linear and plot-centric, moves Deola out of the shadows of introspection and observation into the realm of being observed, seen more closely by the reader and once again by her own family after years apart, in Nigeria. We meet her mother, demanding and intense; her brother Lanre, who has taken up the charge as one of the directors at the bank started by her father, and her sister, the doctor Jaiye, unhappily married. Yet Deola’s interaction with her immediate family, and many others part of her extended family, is secondary to her meeting with Wale, an affluent widower who will change the course of her life forever. It is in this second half of the novel that Deola, flawed, recognizable, humane, is revealed to the reader through her interactions with her family and with Wale. This is where Atta proves equally adept with the conventions of story and setting as with larger socio-political ruminations such as the nature of filial ties and affiliative connection in a seemingly transnational world.
Laden with irony, bitterness, poignancy, and wit, this commanding novel invites the patient and introspective reader to cherish fragments of connection as we untangle complex bits of difference.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.