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Booker Prize 2023 - A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Nigeria – a country marked by extreme poverty and breath-taking wealth – is home to Eniola and Wúràolá, the two protagonists of Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ A Spell of Good Things, two characters who could not be more different, but whose paths end up crossing in a most shocking and violent way.

Eniola is just a teenager but ever since his father lost his teaching job and has been drowning in the consequent depression, the boy has had to step up or his family. Braving the judgment of his headmaster, who chastises him for falling behind on school fees, Eniola remains stoic in the face of humiliation. He even starts helping his mother to beg for money in an attempt to make enough to keep the landlord at bay. Yet he dares to dream for a different, a brighter future, earning a little bit of money by running errands for the local tailor. When a local politician suddenly becomes interested in him, new opportunities arise – and so do new risks.

Wúràolá, a young doctor comes from wealthy parents who are proud of their daughter and yet watch her every step critically, always worried she might misstep after all. But so far, she fulfils all that is expected of her and of course she accepts Kunle’s proposal. They have been together for so long and her family couldn’t be more pleased to see her marry into his. She ignores all warning signs and puts not only herself, but her family in unsuspected danger.

There is so much in this story: wealth and poverty, class and corruption, misogyny and abuse of power. Add to that vibrant scenes of a Nigerian town and a spirited cast of characters and you should have an exciting novel – but unfortunately, here, that is not the case. Adébáyọ̀’s novel is ambitious and definitely has some excellent moments, however, at the end they get lost in too much narration that does not lead anywhere. All these social issues are glanced at, rather than explored. The author states them as facts and does not allow us to encounter them through her characters, who are bright but distant. No real emotion transfers off these pages, intellectually and sentimentally this novel stays superficial most of the way through. Stylistically, A Spell of Good Things is quite uninspiring. Her prose is good, but safe, she doesn’t get close to the literary heights you should be able to expect from a Booker Prize nominee (emphasis on should). What bothered me the most, however, is that I saw no reason for Eniola and Wúràolá’s stories to be told together and to meet in the end – other than, that the author wanted to tell them. It felt like the story could have been so much more effective and affecting had it been two books, diving deep into each of these young people’s lives, without one distracting from the other. Disappointing! I had expected so much more from this.

Published by Canongate, 2023

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