The most alluring characteristic of Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s new novel, A Spell of Good Things, is its distinct use of Yoruba diacritics. The Yoruba language is tonal, and one senses an innate and appreciable linguistic dexterity in Adébáyọ̀’s sophomore novel. Unapologetically Yoruba, an unmistakable Nigerian verisimilitude permeates the novel. Readers unfamiliar with tribal nuances in southwestern Nigeria get no glossaries, soggy transliterations, or italicizations of Nigerian contexts. Yoruba intonations and folklore are exquisitely upheld, while Nigerian food holds an unapologetic stake without anglicized equivalents; characters eat amala, akara, boli, and pounded yam with efo riro without any exposition for a Western audience. Sporadic uses of Pidgin English and colloquial expressions like “sha” and “jare” keep the dialogues authentic and are deftly accompanied by Nigerian music, particularly 2Face’s hit songs: “Odi Ya” and “African Queen.”
The novel mostly flits between two polar protagonists of different socioeconomic classes: a 16-year-old Eniola and Wura, a 28-year-old doctor. Eniola, poor, leaves school and becomes a tailoring apprentice when his parents cannot afford to pay his fees. Dr. Wura, the pride of wealthy parents, gets engaged to Kunle, a TV presenter and politician’s son. Political rivalry paradoxically binds and dampens the characters’ lives, but Adébáyọ̀’s tone is so assured and masterful that it does not steep into the contrived and pithy missteps political and proletarian novels could take. If there is any sense of an agenda in the writing, it is plausible within a Nigerian context: forthcoming governorship elections provoke rivalry between two political aspirants, Professor Babajide Coker and Honorable Kolapo Timothy Fesojaiye. Both receive financial support from Otunba Ademola Makinwa, a wealthy man who imports sundry supplies for government offices and donates to political campaigns in exchange for prospective contracts.
As the elections approach, Wuraola Makinwa dates Kunle Coker, Professor Coker’s son. The Makinwa and Coker families coalesce in preparation for a potential wedding, but overarching waves of shoddy politics and classism hover above them. As their children get engaged, Professor Coker convinces Otunba Makinwa that an investment in his political interests is an “investment to Wuraola’s future.”
Eniola, on the other hand, becomes a tailoring apprentice at Caro’s shop when his parents are able to pay only his sister’s school fees. He is sent to a free but dilapidated public school while his parents fund his sister’s schooling at a private school. Yeye Makinwa, Wuraola’s mother, pays Eniola’s apprenticeship fee after she finds him begging at a church. Yeye and her daughter have very little to do with Caro’s shop, although she is the tailor they patronize for their regal dresses on grand occasions like Yeye’s fiftieth birthday.
Wuraola and Eniola’s lives rarely intersect until the novel’s melodramatic concluding chapters, when Eniola joins Fesojaiye’s thugs to kidnap Otunba Makinwa and burn his house. Eniola is so frightened that he struggles to blindfold Otunba and runs away from the scene.
Eniola gets home, but Saamu and Holy Michael, two of the thugs involved in Otunba’s kidnap, barge into his house and seize Busola, his sister. They threaten the family and warn them not to report to the police.
Wuraola blocks Kunle’s number after he repeatedly assaults her and does not find out about her father’s kidnap in time. While one of her siblings suggests she gets in touch with a mortuary attendant at the hospital where she works, Yeye prepares to pay a ransom and calls her relatives. A rather unforeseen closure brings the novel to an aggravated and questionable halt: Wuraola finds her father’s dead body in the morgue and runs into Eniola in a cab back home.
The narrative perspective flips to Eniola as they both transit in the same cab, amidst an unfolding tragic peak: Fesojaiye’s thugs kill both Otunba Makinwa and Bisola. Eniola yearns for his sister but never finds her. The novel attains its craggy climax via a patchy epilogue with an expectably gloomy Eniola but rather a sudden aura of a new governor without nuance or interiority on the Coker family’s state after Otunba’s death. Divided into four parts with epigraphs from four of Nigeria’s most prominent novelists in the past two decades—Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, Helon Habila, and Teju Cole—A Spell of Good Things is irrefutably expansive and yet so domestic that its characters linger. Although longer and arguably more multifaceted than Adébáyọ̀’s critically acclaimed debut, Stay with Me, it is a testament to Adébáyọ̀’s ability to weave multiple narratives amidst a poignant sense of Nigeria’s political landscape.
by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
Knopf Publishing Group
Published on February 07, 2023
Ife O. Olatona was born in Nigeria. Named an emerging writer to watch by The Times in 2021, his writing has been published by The Poetry Society U.K., The Massachusetts Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Working on his debut book, he will soon begin querying literary agents.