I love the opening line of this book:
One could begin with the dust, the heat and the purple bougainvillea. One might even begin with the smell of rotting mangos tossed by the side of the road where the flies hummed and green-bellied lizards bobbed their orange heads while loitering in the sun. But why start there when Tayo walked in silence, oblivious to his surroundings.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s concern is with character, not with exoticism. If a Londoner like me went to Nigeria, I’m sure I would notice the dust, the heat, the bougainvillea, the mangos and so on. But it’s not what the character is noticing, so it’s not what we’re told about. There are no colourful backdrops here for Westerners to gorge on – they have been replaced by believable characters, struggling with familiar problems like lost love, betrayal, regret, guilt and the difficult balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to oneself.
Specifically, the novel deals with the difficult relationship between Tayo, a young Nigerian on a scholarship to Oxford, and Vanessa, a British colonial officer’s daughter. As an interracial couple in 1960s Britian, they face racism from passersby, policemen and notably Vanessa’s father, and Tayo also worries about whether his own family will accept Vanessa, and whether she will be able to live in African society. Many of the problems, however, are of their own making – they hold back from saying what they feel, they miscommunicate, they misunderstand, they lash out, they are unfaithful. And then fate and politics intervene at crucial points – as Tayo is about to propose, he gets a telegram saying his father is dying and he has to return to Nigeria. A military coup prevents him from returning. Much later, he is about to visit Vanessa in England but is arrested on his way to the airport.
I kept waiting for the happy ever after moment, but to my relief it never came. The ending is happy in a way, but this is certainly not a traditional romance. By the end of the book, there’s a glimmer of happiness but much has been lost. The characters’ trajectory mirrors that of Nigeria, as the optimism of independence is replaced by cynicism, outside exploitation and internal corruption, until finally, at the end, there’s some tentative hope for the future. I don’t think the characters are meant to ‘stand for’ the political developments in a literal way, but there’s the same sense of progress at a great price, bitter lessons learned, opportunities missed, hopes clouded by the memory of mistakes and failures.
One downside of Manyika’s strong emphasis on character was that, for me, sometimes the characters’ thoughts and emotions were excavated too thoroughly. Although the narration is in the third person, we have full access to all the thoughts and feelings of both Tayo and Vanessa – the narrative switches back and forth between one point of view and the other. The good part of this is that we get to know the characters very well, but I would have preferred for some of the character development to be shown through their actions and words so that I could guess or interpret their real feelings, rather than having it all laid out for me.
Still, I enjoyed the book very much, both for the love story of Tayo and Vanessa at its core and for the way political changes and ideas from Nigeria to Oxford to San Francisco are woven into the story. And, most of all, for focusing on the characters instead of the mangos!