A fractured identity in search of solace
Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso
This unusual and touching novel centres on Leke, who is half Nigerian and half South African but was adopted in infancy by a white middle-class Capetonian couple. Despite his material comfort and security, he grows up in a sort of pervasive “darkness” that the novel seeks to explain; isolated and clever, he is bullied at school and understandably eschews cricket, sailing and birthday parties.
The time frames of the story are somewhat fractured, giving the reader a sense of Leke’s own disrupted consciousness. His earliest best connection is with his adoptive mother who dies while he is young, leaving him to continue life with his fond but rather dufferish adoptive father, Marcus.
Parts of the story are narrated in the third person, some in letters from his “Western”-educated but jailed Nigerian father, who is convinced that both he and Leke are under a curse—“the darkness”.
There are also letters from his birth mother.
Although he makes it to university and is an able student, he becomes increasingly isolated and dysfunctional in a fairly harmless way.
Omotoso bravely renders her protagonist quite unlikeable, despite his obvious anguish, until he gradually comes to integrate the two parts of his family. Fortunately, she offsets this with her light, fluid writing and some amusing incidents. Several well-realised characters emerge, such as Tsotso, a girl he has been stalking until he helps her when he sees her grandmother fall in a parking garage.
In telling us Leke’s life, Omotoso includes traditional Nigerian belief in the power of a babalawo (high priest) to cast a real and effective curse with modern, urbanised and, indeed, academic life. And it is through serious engagement with dreams and a visit to a sangoma that Leke begins to feel better.
Omotoso gives considerable insight into what it is like to be a migrant from the northern part of Africa, dealing with loneliness, displacement and dislocation in a highly recognisable South Africa.
It is original in style, with a serious purpose.