Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away

Writing Wednesday

It has been some time since I did a book review and there are several that I ought to write about, but the one that gets my top vote is Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson.

Set in Nigeria, the story is told by Blessing, a 12 year old girl. Her life is turned upside down when her mother walks in on her father 'on top of another woman'. Almost immediately her mother's loss of job and status meant a move from the comparative luxury of Lagos to the village, the family compound. Life changes beyond recognition as she has to do her share of the chores and learn about what is safe - from the oil workers, the freedom fighters, the non-refrigerated meat, the roadblocks, the school toilets. Nothing is straightforward and the culture shock is palpable.

Christie Watson portrays the characters beautifully. The clever older brother, Ezikiel, and his allergies. The distant mother and the loud Father with clean shoes. The grandmother who holds the family together. The grandfather, patriarch whose word is law. His second wife, who has a love of lycra clothing despite the heat. Add in the driver and his seventeen children who have to be cared for, the imman, and the complications of a relationship with a white man. It is a truly magnificent tale.

Difficult subjects are touched on with understatement and sensitivity, principally female circumcision (or FGM), which to our Western eyes is so horrific yet is sensitively portrayed as the social expectation in rural Nigeria, and the difficult issue of mixed-race relationships, if not racism against whites. There is also both religion and politics, a dangerous mix in normal circumstances. The political situation in the Nigerian oil fields, where great wealth is not filtering down to the locals and the resulting simmering resentment is always in the background ready to explode. Blessing also has to come to terms with moving into her grandfather's Islamic house after her Christian upbringing for twelve years.

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away won the Costa First Novel Award just a few weeks ago, and is well worth reading. If Christie Watson continues to write with such verve, passion and sensitivity she will many more prizes and plaudits, and deserve them all.


Mark said...

Not heard of this - thanks for the tip

Catharine Withenay said...

I hope you enjoy it! I think it is definitely worth reading, about a situation and country of which I only have basic knowledge.

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