A MIRROR REFLECTION OF A SOCIETY PLAGUED BY CLASS INEQUALITY: A REVIEW OF AYỌ̀BÁMI ADÉBÁYỌ̀'S A SPELL OF GOOD THINGS
By Ilerioluwa Olatunde
"She had never been able to shake the sense that life was war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things."
In A Spell of Good Things, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ masterfully reveals the harsh realities of class inequality by infusing her life experiences into the narrative. Inspired by her upbringing in Nigeria, she vividly captures the stark contrast between her privileged origins as the daughter of a medical doctor and the eye-opening encounter with an improvised neighborhood during a detour on her way home from work in Ilé-Ifẹ̀, as she revealed in a recent interview with The Guardian. This personal experience gave her a setting for one strand of her novel.
After reading her debut novel, Stay with Me, I have always appreciated Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ as a writer. While Stay with Me delved into the personal struggles of a young couple who face the pressure of infertility and the weight of tradition, A Spell of Good Things explores the complexities of human relationships within a broader context of social and political turmoil.
In A Spell of Good Things, wealth and poverty coexist side by side, as depicted by the families of Ẹniọlá and Wúràọlá, who reside in the same city but inhabit vastly different realities. Ẹniọlá, a determined teenager, sees his dreams of a better education and a brighter future dashed by government layoffs that affect his father. On the other side of the coin is Wúràọlá, a young doctor from an affluent and influential family, who grapples with her first year of residency in an underfunded government hospital and the complexities of her relationship with an abusive partner, the son of a prominent surgeon with political ambitions. Though their paths never directly cross, amidst political and economic turmoil, their separate worlds collide most heartbreakingly.
The thought-provoking novel exposes the disparity between social classes, the fragility of middle-class life, and the far-reaching consequences of social inequality where the rich amass more wealth while the poor slide further into poverty. Yèyé, Wúràọlá's mother, recognises that one is only a wink away from poverty and that "life was war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things," prompting her to hoard gold and properties as a form of security. Conversely, Wúràọlá's marriage to Kúnlé is a striking reflection of society's obsession with status and affluence, positioning them to fortify their social and political connections. On the flip side, Ẹniọlá's family experiences a sudden plunge from middle-class comfort to a relentless string of crises after his father loses his job.
Through Ẹniọlá's family's struggles, Adébáyọ̀ portrays the harsh realities of poverty. For instance, there's a poignant moment when a vendor spits on Ẹniọlá as he tries to get a newspaper on credit for his job-seeking father, the harassment from landlords, or when the young boy is physically punished at school for failing to pay his fees. The practice of whipping students for such circumstances remains a puzzling phenomenon that I still find difficult to comprehend.
As Ẹniọlá's family sinks deeper into poverty due to his father's prolonged unemployment and ensuing depression, his mother, Ìyá Ẹniọlá, is forced to become the provider. She devises various survival tactics, even coercing her children into street begging; however, these efforts fail to alleviate their socio-economic struggles. When Ẹniọlá discovered that he had to leave the private school due to unpaid fees, it became the straw that broke the camel's back. In an attempt to improve his family's circumstances, Ẹniọlá becomes entangled with an anti-social group and, naively, a local politician's pawn, leading to irreversible changes in his life and dire consequences for his family.
Adébáyọ̀'s writing catches the eye with her ability to employ multiple points of view to paint a vivid picture of social class and family in Nigeria's political landscape. She tackles themes like mental health, political corruption and violence, domestic abuse, and social injustices through her characters. Despite a large cast of secondary characters, each stands out thanks to Adébáyọ̀'s use of first-person perspectives. Ẹniọlá, Wúràọlá, and their families breathe life into the story through their speech, actions, and views. Hence, this dual perspective offers a rich exploration of family dynamics and societal expectations. However, this character-driven approach also demands patience from readers.
Adébáyọ̀ also delves into generational perspectives as the narrative shifts between family members. Through Yèyé and her daughters, generational differences emerge, highlighting the evolving values. In a patriarchal society, marriage holds immense importance, seemingly essential for societal existence. Wúràọlá, despite her academic achievements, yields to social and familial pressures to accept Kúnlé's proposal. Representing a younger, outspoken generation, Wúràọlá's sister, Mótárá, rejects these traditional notions and counts the times anyone would speak about how she plans to behave when she gets married or lives in her husband's house. She stands up against societal pressures and even confronts her sister's abuse despite being labeled rude and spoiled. Mọtárá's character resonates with those society deems rebellious, rejecting the idea that women should aspire solely to marry.
"Her husband's house was the destination everyone had been referring to since she was old enough to understand what they meant…. the husband's house was the destination of all good girls when they became women, just as heaven was the destination of all good people when they died." Page 237
Wúràọlá's story also reflects the state of our healthcare system, highlighting the imbalance of doctors to patients, the glaring infrastructure deficiencies, and the dire consequences of underfunded hospitals, both for the citizens and health practitioners. The author also exposes the grim reality of Nigerian politics, where the concept of "stomach infrastructure" prevails, emphasizing material benefits over substantive policy proposals. The book strongly condemns a political landscape indifferent to the welfare of the people, exploiting the poverty-stricken population to advance personal agendas and fueling political conflicts.
"Closer to the elections, members of the association would get their own share of the sudden generosity of several contestants. Wives or sisters of contestants would come to meetings with bowls of rice, kegs of oil, yards and yards of ankara embossed with the contestants' faces and logos. The men themselves—and the contestants were mostly men—never came in person to answer any questions about what they intended to do in office. Page 10
The novel also pays homage to notable African writers, each section titled after their works: Sefi Atta's Everything Good Will Come, Chika Unigwe's On Black Sisters Street, Helon Habila's Waiting for An Angel, Teju Cole's Everyday Is for the Thief, and T.M. Aluko's Kinsman and Foreman. Additionally, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ embraces her Yoruba heritage and Nigerian identity, infusing the narrative with Nigerian English, Yoruba references, and diacritics. I also enjoyed the book's rich descriptions: the author's choice of words and literary devices to vividly describe Nigeria and its culture, societal beliefs, and family dynamics.
The narrative surges with suspense as the gubernatorial elections approach, with Kúnlé's father entering a high-stakes battle against a corrupt politician. Yet, some predictability sets in as the story approaches its zenith and the pace quickens. Nevertheless, A Spell of Good Things, whose title contradicts the novel's content, showcases the author's remarkable ability to weave multiple narratives within a complex plot, leaving you yearning for more. Throughout the pages, the author's gift for descriptive and narrative storytelling shines brilliantly, drawing us deeply into the characters' lives and evoking genuine sympathy. This captivating novel fearlessly tells the story of both sides of the social divide. It also serves as a poignant reminder that societal classes are far more intricately interconnected than we often perceive.
Olatunde Ilerioluwa is a creative writer and public speaker interested in fiction, creative nonfiction, and performance poetry. Her love for books has also influenced her book reviewing. She writes to take her readers on a journey of insight, knowledge, and excitement. Her work focuses on book reviews, lifestyle, and the human condition. She draws inspiration from the books she reads, societal issues, personal life, interaction with others, and her relationship with God.
When she is not writing and journaling, she reads, listens to music, has fun in her head, or does research. A Karen Kingsbury book is all she needs after a stressful day. She hopes to write more and publish books.