/ 29 May 2024

Humanity is the tie that binds us

Edinburgh International Book Festival
Powerful: A Spell of Good Things by Ayobami Adebayo (above) is set in Nigeria and woven together by strong women. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Forgive me while I start with an observation incongruous with the rest of this review. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the work of Isaac Asimov.

For me, Asimov — or Uncle Ike, as I liked to think of him — was one of the pillars that the Golden Age of Science Fiction rested upon, along with Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein.  

He wrote tales that boggled my adolescent mind, and in high school, when I wasn’t sneaking glances at the girls in my class or annihilating my eardrums with early 1990s rock, I was obsessing over an idea, concept or phrase that Uncle Ike had introduced into my sphere of reference. 

I truly loved every silly word that fell out of his typewriter and thought he was the pinnacle of all authors.

So, imagine my surprise when it was first brought to my attention that Asimov couldn’t, and didn’t, write female characters. I remember combing through as many of his works as I could, looking for some shred of proof that my hero was not so glaringly fallible. 

Unfortunately, I only discovered what many had before me — Asimov, though apparently quite well-acquainted with women in reality, to the point it cost him his first marriage, simply did not have a female character that was worth a damn. 

His one well-known woman character, Dr Susan Calvin, was emotionless and aloof to the point of being almost robotic and clearly functioned only as an author avatar in the tales in which she appeared. 

Other than that, his stories were a safe little treehouse with a “No Girls Allowed!” sign posted prominently on the front door. 

I mention all of this because, when it comes to female characters, Ayobami Adebayo, author of the harrowing and emotionally gripping A Spell of Good Things, is Uncle Ike’s polar opposite.

That’s not to say her male characters are lacking — far from it. But in this book, strong women are the fabric that weaves the tale together and the engine that propels it forward. 

Set in modern Nigeria, A Spell of Good Things concerns itself primarily with two characters: Eniola, the teenage son of a father whose career was a casualty of governmental reform and whose family now scrapes together an existence barely over the breadline, and Wuraola, the fresh-out-of-medical-school daughter of a well-to-do family who is struggling to balance her work rotations and her relationship with the tumultuous son of politically connected elite. 

The story fantastically illustrates the yawning gulf between haves and have-nots in Nigeria. 

We bear equal witness to Eniola’s family not being able to afford a newspaper for his father to peruse job listings and Wuraola’s family throwing opulent bashes for their friends with political aspirations. 

And this will make an impression on a South African reader that it would not necessarily make on a reader from Europe or North America. The rhythms of life in the Global South are the same, even if the country is different. 

Set against this backdrop are the women who stand unwavering even as the chaos of their homeland swirls around them, socially and politically:

Wuraola, intelligent and resourceful, seeking not to be subdued or subsumed by her fiancée’s family.

Yeye, Wuraola’s mother, who encourages her daughter to live her truth, but perhaps do so a tad more diplomatically.

Caro, the tailor to whom Eniola is apprenticed and who works for Yeye, providing the intersection between Eniola and Wuraola’s lives, who encourages all around her to never bend the knee to those who would seek to dehumanise them.

Busaola, Eniola’s sister, whose powerful intellect is exceeded only by her unflagging belief in her family, even as it crumbles around her.

Abosede, Eniola’s mother, who must find a way to deal with her husband’s slow descent into depression while finding the means to keep her children’s heads above water.

All these women are tent poles holding aloft their respective clans against the lashings of social dissonance, political uncertainty and the discrepancy in wealth that would engulf them if left unchecked.

Emotionally, the story is a tough read, casting as it does harsh light on the hardscrabble day-to-day existence that many in the Global South must endure. Even those who find themselves in positions of privilege in this book have their own problems to surmount. 

Adebayo does well to illustrate that, regardless of social status, anyone can become the victim of abuse, be it something as direct as domestic violence or more nebulous, such as political thuggery. 

Anywhere that power exists, there are those who aspire to abuse it and this is a human condition unrelated to the trappings of one’s everyday life. 

Even in this, Adebayo provides us with a uniquely feminine perspective. In the back of their minds, most men believe that, if push came to shove, they would be able to summon the resources to face off against a physically violent threat and emerge victorious. 

This belief might have very little to do with reality in many cases, but it exists. 

Women entertain no such frivolity. They instinctively know that violence is bad, and no one is ever as prepared to deal with it as they think. 

Women also know that violence exists in many forms and that physical violence is often the least malevolent kind. 

It is this important perspective that permeates this book, reminding us that humanity is the tie that binds, and it’s only when we forget that that we fail ourselves.

In summary — a wonderfully written book which provides unique perspectives on tough subjects and well worth the read.A Spell of Good Things is published by Canongate Books.