Still managing just to hold onto my schedule, I have two books in this picture left to finish (I’ve started “Miguel Street” and I’ve managed to get nicely ahead of my TBR challenge plan. I do need to say however about this book that I was very wrong when I used to say, airily, “Oh, I don’t read books about Africa”. Oh dear. This usually meant Africa south of the countries along the northern edge, and didn’t include the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And over the years, I did read a few books set all or partly in Africa (“Americanah” for instance. This was mainly down, to be fair to me, to my perception of the habit of publishers to share in my market mainly books that featured bloody and violent conflict (similarly to the idea that there must be Icelandic books published that are not noir, but not that many reach us). However much I know we must not look away from bloody and violent conflict, especially that caused essentially by colonialism, I also have issues with reading and watching violent content. However, I was OK reading about Partition in India, just about. And I think I did have a sea-change and change of heart after reading “Roots” with its horrific scenes. And then, of course, it turns out that books about Africa are not all about bloody and violent conflict anyway (thanks, unconscious bias and stereotyping) and I really should have read this amazing 1970s classic earlier. Anyway, confession over, I bought this book in July this year in my Book Token Splurge, having seen Emecheta’s work featured on a TV programme about African writers a few months previously.

Buchi Emecheta – “Second-Class Citizen”

(01 July 2021)

They were kind, those women in the ward. For the first few days, when Adah was deciding whether it was worth struggling to hold on to this life, those women kept showing her many things. They seemed to be telling her to look around her, that there were still many beautiful things to be seen which she had not seen, that there were still several joys to be experienced which she had not yet experienced, that she was still young, that her whole life was still ahead of her. (p. 115)

This 1974 novel is of course as brutal and psychologically horrific as any narrative of war in its way. But it’s also powerful, enchanting and very readable. Adah, a Nigerian Igbo woman, having had a tricky start in life, getting herself as educated as she could do through various means and wanting to become a librarian, marries young and manages to use the family dynamics of her in-laws to ensure that when her husband, Francis, travels to London to “study”, she accompanies him. Francis is a terrible waster, refusing to work or even study properly, quick to strike out physically or verbally and messing around with other women (this is staged as a practice to relieve her when she’s had one of their many children). She has to use all her wits and guile to get a job, get housing – it’s set in the 1960s and racial prejudice is still rife, so she’s refused housing when people find out she’s Black, and with two, then three, then four children – and work out how to operate in this strange, unemotional land, where you certainly don’t make up a stompy revenge song and dance if someone annoys you. Things get worse when she tries to access contraception so she can stop popping out a baby a year, and finds she has to have Francis’ signature to get it.

She inhabits twin worlds of slightly shady boarding houses and the lovely atmosphere of public libraries, where her colleagues are kind and supportive, and bring a light into her difficult world – there’s a particularly lovely part near the end where a Canadian colleague orders books by Black writers through the library system then the workers share them around and discuss them. She encounters White women who have married or had children with Black men and sees her husband’s pull towards White women, too, but shows sympathy for everyone who is just trying to get by. It’s a heartbreaking book but with enough points of light from kind people, from the fellow-patients in the maternity ward to their GP, to relieve the reader as well as Adah, and moments of reflection and beauty in the scraps of nature Adah finds in London.

I loved the clear, almost naive but penetrating and intelligent writing style (it reminded me a bit of my great favourite author R. K. Narayan) and indeed she talks about this near the end of the book when Adah is considering becoming a writer.

Yes, it was the English language she was going to use. But she could not write those big, long, twisting words. Well, she might not be able to do those long, difficult words, but she was going to do her own phrases her own way. Adah’s phrases, that was what they were gong to be. (p. 177)

Unfortunate in her choice of husband, desperate to escape after he makes a big attempt on her identity and half-kills her, beaten down psychologically in London to be made to feel she’s a second-class citizen (at best), she retains her hope and spirit, determined she will be proud to be Black and inculcate that in her children. I loved this book and will be acquiring and reading the rest of her works, and soon.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 20/85 – 65 to go! It was Book 14 in my Novellas in November reads.