This book has a lot of buzz around it and has already won awards from Red Magazine, the BBC and Stylist Magazine – for a first novel, that’s quite astounding. I came across it in my NetGalley emails and the author was also mentioned by my old university friend Julia Bell as one of her Birkbeck students, so even though I don’t read many books set in Africa, I just had to pick it up. And I’m very glad I did.

This is an exceptional and important novel that’s also unputdownable, the traumatic events it portrays in gritty detail balanced out by the delightful, resourceful and resilient heroine/narrator. Nigerian Adunni is the same age as the century, 14, when she’s sold in marriage by her father for what is effectively some goats, money and a telly. She has to get used to being a third wife, but draws comfort from her ability to make supportive friends. When tragedy hits, she’s forced to go on the run, only to be sold into domestic slavery. She only realises that’s what happens through her reading in the library of the house she works at – the gradual dawning of comprehension is so deftly handled.

Adunni’s late mother instilled in her a love and craving for education, and she wants so badly to be a teacher, but it seems impossible that she will ever get to return to her studies, the gulf between rich and poor, whether in a village or the capital, being too great to be able to raise yourself up even a little. She does have a sort of role model in the form of her employer, who started a fabric brand from scratch, and there are great and funny examples of her ruthless selling techniques, however she’s an unhappy and uneducated woman who is a role model in no other way.

It takes a disparate group of people who are different from Adunni and indeed ‘othered’ in Nigeria – this point is made subtly – a Ghanaian man who has a daughter her age, a woman who has lived in the UK and is having trouble fitting back into the wealthy society back in Nigeria and a Muslim driver – to help her raise herself up, little by little. Everything is plausible and difference is punished by society while being praised by the book – although when Tia goes through a barbaric local custom, her mother-in-law is forced to consider if her traditional ways are the best.

The book is written in an under-educated pidgin English which takes very little time to get into (like Girl, Woman, Other being in “poetry” it’s something you might worry about but the worry goes in an instant when you start reading): it’s easier to read than James Kelman, for example. A heart-breaking example comes when she considers her societal role to have children:

But I don’t want to born anything now. How will a girl like me born childrens? Why will I fill up the world with sad childrens that are not having a chance to go to school? Why make the world to be one big, sad, silent place because all the childrens are not having a voice?

I have seen one single criticism (on NetGalley) that the language used is not typical of Nigerian English with Yoruba as a first language; not something I feel qualified to have an opinion on, even though I have edited quite a few works by people with African Language 1s. The author is Nigerian, and the writing is inventive, appealing and gives an extra dimension to the novel, so I trust her on that, although I would like to know more about how she formed it, just out of interest. The language Adunni uses, trying to express herself (and there are some beautiful descriptions) adds to the heart-breaking nature of the story, but with bright flashes of hope. I found myself straining towards the end, hoping that against all the odds, something positive would happen in Adunni’s life.

I saw some clever parallels with “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Adunni’s search for what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca (another moment of intertextuality?) – using the same room, she finds tiny clues to Rebecca’s existence and seeks more information from the driver. I’m bursting to know whether that was intentional – but it must have been.

Adunni is such a great character, with her own agency where she can carve it out, proving to be a fearless haggler in the market and working hard to educate herself as well as accepting help from others. It’s a magnificent achievement of a book and is likely to be one of my books of the year.

Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Girl with the Louding Voice” is published on 05 March 2020 and I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy.