Some of the most fascinating novels explore the tensions between traditional ways of life and the lure of more modern ways of being. This is what roils the plot in Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s second novel, A Spell of Good Things. For at least two of its main characters, teenager Ẹniọlá and fledgling doctor Wuraọlá, the tension is all but intolerable.
The story begins in a southwestern state in present-day Nigeria, nearly a year before an election that will usher a corrupt (or even criminal) politician into the governorship. Schools are lousy; students, including Ẹniọlá and his sister, are flogged if their parents don’t pay their school fees. Hospitals are even worse; more than one patient dies in the hospital where Wuraọlá works because of a lack of simple antivirals. There is no safety net, and inequality is atrocious. Ẹniọlá, his mother and sister must beg in the street. The children’s father, fired from his job, is in such a state of despair that he won’t get out of bed. On the other hand, Wuraọlá’s family is well-off enough to pay for her education and throw a lavish party to celebrate her mother’s birthday.
Yet both impoverished Ẹniọlá and financially comfortable Wuraọlá feel hogtied by the traditions of the somewhat matriarchal society in which they were raised. Deference to elders and those in authority is so absolute that Ẹniọlá’s parents don’t even consider going to the school and insisting that the teachers stop beating their kids. Wuraọlá’s profession as a doctor isn’t what warms the cockles of her family’s hearts the most; it’s that she’s getting married before she’s 30.
Ẹniọlá and Wuraọlá are destined to meet, and they do so in the most innocent and pedestrian of ways. But after that first encounter, the events that follow reveal the profound irony of the novel’s title.
Adébáyọ̀ (Stay With Me) has a sprightly writing style that’s pleasurably at odds with the devastating story she tells. She captures the almost musical speech patterns of her characters and doesn’t trouble to translate snatches of Nigeria’s many languages. The novel’s cast is large, but each character is distinct; you won’t confuse Ẹniọlá’s mother with Wuraọlá’s, even though they’re quite alike. Both suffer, and so do their families.
A Spell of Good Things is a wonderfully written, tragic book.