A last review from my holiday last week: I read this one on the plane on the way home (I like to have a print book to hand for flights in case I’m told to turn my Kindle off, although in fact I was very absorbed in Jonathan Coe’s “Bournville” as we landed in Birmingham!).

I received this book in my Birmingham BookCrossers’ Not So Secret Santa parcel last December from the lovely Sam (alongside a Christmas book I read on Christmas Day and another book I haven’t read yet). It would have fallen under the Novellas in Translation themed week for Novellas in November had I reviewed it last week but I’m not really doing the themed weeks so it’s all OK!

Mariama Ba (trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) – “So Long a Letter”

(16 December 2021, from Sam)

Waiting! But waiting for what? I was not divorced … I was abandoned; a fluttering leaf that no hand dares to pick up, as my grandmother would have said. (p. 56)

I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Senegal yet, though I might be wrong, and I’m very glad I’ve read this classic of women’s writing. It was originally written in French and Ba obviously has a quite different attitude to colonialism that people who came after her, as her (apparently fairly autobiographical) main character loves her French-administered school and relishes the education she receives there. I’ll note I’m not being clever and percptive about attitudes to colonialism here: as this is an edition published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, there’s an excellent and fairly academic introduction. Kenneth Harrow also points out this is an early example of African feminist writing and I can really see that in the deep commitment to female friendship that is shown throughout the novel.

We meet Ramatouolaye at her husband’s funeral. She’s writing it all in a letter to her best friend, and we get the immediate present first, all the rituals and family stuff going on, all rooted in her Muslim faith. Unobtrusive footnotes help us through the details, as there’s a lot about payments, clothing, etc., but underlying it all is the fact that now she is widowed, she’s going to have to tread carefully to retain her own agency and life. Added to all the confusion is that there’s a second, much younger, wife involved – and this also happened to her friend, although in that case, it was down to manipulation by her mother in law and she has walked out of her marriage, all the way to America. We learn these details gradually, but we’re basically shown very cleverly two different ways that a woman can get into this kind of situation and react to it. Always, their strong friendship binds them and keeps them going.

Ramatouolaye must negotiate several suitors and these are very amusing points in the book where she gives at lesat two of them what for and engages in interesting political discussions with the last She also has a neighbour who is able to predict the future and also has very strong opinions on the right thing to do. She acts as a kind of Greek chorus, not always welcome, but another strong female figure. Added to these figures is her grandmother, whose precepts and advice she remembers more and more as she travels through her own life.

Ramatouolaye must also negotiate the changes in her children’s lives as they grow and push the boundaries, from the older children smoking to the youngest boy playing football in the street, a risky business, and then one of her daughters finds herself in the oldest predicament of all. Will she do the right thing or the kindest thing? We leave the book on a positive note, a reunion with her dearest friend on the cards. What a lovely book, funny and perceptive and empowering and so much packed into under 200 pages. Highly recommended.

This was Book 4 for Novellas in November.