Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who knows what she wants: an education. This, her mother has told her, is the only way to get a ‘louding voice’—the ability to speak for herself and decide her own future. But instead, Adunni’s father sells her to be the third wife of a local man who is eager for her to bear him a son and heir. When Adunni runs away to the city, hoping to make a better life, she finds that the only other option before her is servitude to a wealthy family. As a yielding daughter, a subservient wife, and a powerless slave, Adunni is told, by words and deeds, that she is nothing.
But while misfortunes might muffle her voice for a time, they cannot mute it. And when she realises that she must stand up not only for herself, but for other girls, for the ones who came before her and were lost, and for the next girls, who will inevitably follow; she finds the resolve to speak, however she can—in a whisper, in song, in broken English—until she is heard.
At the surface, this book is about Adunni, a young girl from a poor, rural area in Nigeria, who fights the odds of a patriarchal and sexist society to get an education. At a deeper level, this novel critically examines gender and class relations in Nigeria, and it dares to speak about a topic that is almost a taboo in Nigerian society: the treatment and ‘employment’ of underage girls (and boys) as house girls / maids (or house boys).
The language used in the book, which is narrated from a first-person perspective by Adunni herself, is something that has been picked up on in other reviews, and it’s something that made me curious about the book. I had to adjust to the language at first (which I don’t think is supposed to be Nigerian Pidgin but rather a reflection of how someone with little education is likely to speak), but eventually, though, it worked well for the character, and I was pleased to see the language change as Adunni grows and develops. The way in which she speaks towards the end of the novel is quite different from her way of speaking at the beginning. While her sentences were riddled with mistakes and her vocabulary was quite limited at the start, her way of communicating at the end is melodic and melancholic, full of hope and poetry. I ended up being so moved by her words that I cried through the last two chapters.
Apart from Adunni, my favourite character would have to be Kofi, the ever-generous and even fatherly companion to Adunni in Big Madam’s hellish household. I also really sympathised with Abu, the gentle driver, who puts his trust in Adunni and reveals a dark secret to her. The characters in the book, including Big Madame, seem to be victims of circumstances, of a deeply unfair, patriarchal and classist system, that is run and propped up by corrupt politicians and societal gatekeepers.
While the story about a young and abused girl can be appealing to younger audiences in particular, there is plenty of more ‘grown-up’ commentary contained in this book as well. Abi Daré cleverly contextualises her novel in modern day Nigeria, the end of the novel is set during the time when President Buhari is elected for the first time as a democratic president of the nation, for example, and the author leaves room for critical interpretation and understanding of the fate of the characters in the context of Nigeria’s often turbulent political and social climate.
I really enjoyed this book, and I have drawn strength and inspiration from it. It has made me reconsider some things I have come to know from my home and family in Nigeria, and it has reminded me of the unbelievable strength and determination that girls and women can carry inside of themselves.
Read this book, if you can, it’s wonderful.