I go into these biographical details because she brings a glook to her writing, and I don’t know whether that’s a Nigerian thing, an African thing, or a South African thing – something about the country that infects writers? I don’t know, I’ve only read J.M. Coetzee, and that was hardly a barrel of laughs.
Nor is this book. There was hardly any point during the reading of this book that I was tempted to even smile, let alone laugh. Another heavy, depressing book with characters with whom it is almost impossible to empathise. Even the scenes that are supposed to be a bit funny (page 88: “… there’s a great sex scene on page a hundred and twenty.”) aren’t, because there’s this overlaid sense of dread, depression. After all, by then, you know that Oscar, the man making the ‘joke’, is going to end up in prison. That’ quite a downer.
On top of that, it’s one of those irritating books where the story goes back and forth in time – and you have to pay attention to the date at the start of each chapter. Irritating because once you see (as early as page 11) that on the 25th of July 1992, Leke’s father, Oscar, is in prison clothes, you want to know what put him there.
After two pages I assume that Leke is a black child adopted by white parents, that he is at some kind of private school (aka public school in England) and that he is bullied. My heart sinks. But actually, it turns out that Leke’s father is mixed race, while his mother appears to be white, so I guess it’s just that Leke is bullied full stop. But my heart still sank. I should say however, that although one is made aware of the racial identities of the characters – that is just by way of description: it is not a story about race (thank heavens!)
I was making notes as I read along, and this is a note that I made quite early:
“So far, Leke is concealing his thoughts and experiences from Marcus, and Jane is also concealing her thoughts from Marcus. Why is Marcus so dense? I read on.
Ah ha! The birthday party – did Marcus guess that Leke never delivered the invitations, or did he just want to spare him further humiliation when it was clear that nobody was coming."
Something that has resonance today:
“The ignorance of his lab mates mixed with the opulence of Rhodes Memorial had brewed distaste in Oscar. Here in this country, he’d realised, they memorialised wealthy men – thieves; back home in Nigeria, simple people who sacrificed for the group.”
More of my notes:
“Neither Leke nor his birth mother replace buttons. Babies don’t ‘kick’ in their mothers’ wombs.”
Leke finds a photograph among his mother’s things: it is described as “sepia-coloured” and has a name starting with ‘E’. As we read on, we assume that it must be his birth mother – Elaine. But he was born in 1992 – so what would his mother be doing with sepia coloured photographs – which are more appropriate to the 1950s.
Always these stories of children bullied and mocked at school.
And that old trope about ‘brown baby’ slipping out of her white one – well, I’ve never seen a white baby immediately after birth, but I can bet my last money that a mixed race baby (one apparently only ¼ African) does not emerge from the womb ‘brown’.
Now it turns out that Leke is not just stalking women and stealing things from them (he’s been banned from the mall for stalking), but he also seems to be running some kind of fraud in order to pay for the medical appointments that he has taken to arranging for himself – apparently just so that he can have some human company. So if I cared about him, I’d now be worried that he’s also going to be arrested and sent to jail. But do I? Not really!
However, half way through the book, we get to the issue of the curse. It’s a nice twist on the expected: “You will bear only boys”.
Meanwhile, we learn that Tsotso – the object of the leering glances and remarks of Leke’s workmate’s – is a person too. But a weird one too. I mean, naked on a grand piano?
I try to understand, to be sympathetic. Reading about the fact that Leke lives in squalor, I tell myself that Leke is depressed following his mother’s death, but … do I want to read about it? And even if he is depressed after her death, he was hardly a bundle of joy when she was alive, was he? I mean, lots of children feel anxious about their birthday parties, but wasn’t there something a bit more than odd in the way he threw the invitations away? However, I realise that I don’t really have enough experience of bullying to really be able to say. Having my schooling in Britain, if I had been thinking in racial terms, I would have been aware of being one of at most two black children – both when I was at boarding school (my sister was the other) and at secondary school in London – there was only one other black girl in my class. With hindsight, I realise that the girl who was … not so much bullied as just not popular, was Jewish, but I think that was as much because she had a very awkward shape and was bad at gym. But even she had a ‘best friend’. In any case, it’s not that she was ostracised or anything and there was no nastiness as such. As for me, I was also bad at gym, I didn’t consider myself one of the popular girls, and going to live with the headmistress could also have been something of a social distancing measure, but in fact, when they decided that the children would be allowed to elect the heads of the five school houses, I was elected as head of mine. Of course, that was inner London in the 1970s – despite Enoch Powell and the National Front, it wasn’t really a racialised society like South Africa. And as I said, this isn’t really a book about race. It isn’t because of race that Leke is the way he is. It may well be different for boys. But still. I don’t understand why teachers aren’t supposed to pick up on these things in school and do something about them.
There is the broken deal with the babalawo. There is acceptance of the reality of the curse. There is the tragic family history. And there is Oscar’s decision about what he must do to break the curse. And his second decision and realisation about what he must do to break the curse. In his letters, Oscar comes across as a passionate man, with strong feelings and a deep love for his son, yet there is something joyless about the way he starts his relationship with Elaine and conceives a child with her. But when he writes to her and his son, there is a tenderness there.
For Leke, there is the possibility of love – or at least, of emerging from his shell, from the depression that – as I say, was already there, but perhaps had hardened even more after his mother died.
In the end, I wanted to know what happens, so I was propelled to read to the end. Despite saying that I couldn’t feel any empathy for the characters, I guess that by the time Tsotso appeared and treated Leke as a normal person would, despite her weirdness, I was hoping that they would at least have a friendship.
Yewande Omotosho writes well. But still. It’s a heavy tale.