Somehow I’ve ended up reading a lot of men ain’t shit novels this year. I promise it hasn’t been intentional; I haven’t been deliberately searching for feminist texts or even been in a particularly radical mood. Nevertheless, Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut becomes yet another female centred narrative to make its way onto my lap in 2020. I can’t say that I’m complaining.
It’s 1996 in Lagos, Nigeria. Twin sisters Ariyike and Bibike, along with their younger brothers Andrew and Peter, enjoy a comfortable life. Ariyike and Bibike are attractive, well-dressed, witty girls, whose promise radiates off the page. Their bright personalities mean little, however, when circumstances beyond their control interfere with their livelihoods. First, their mother loses her job following political unrest. Their father, a naive would-be entrepreneur, is then duped into squandering the remainder of the family’s funds to a scam artist. The family is plunged into disrepair. Their mother leaves first, fleeing for America. Their father follows suit shortly after, dropping his children off with their grandmother and fleeing Lagos.
A childhood of prosperity is rapidly replaced by an adolescence of poverty. As they grow older, Ariyike and Bibike decide that they will do what they must in order to claw their way out of the obscurity which their parents have dumped them in. Bibike embraces the modern world, and throws herself into independence. Ariyike, on the other hand, sinks into religion so slowly that she hardly realises how deeply changed she has become until it is far too late.
For a relatively short work, Black Sunday is ambitious in its scope. Spanning a period of decades, and covering four family members, this novel is something of an abridged odyssey. All four of the children have their share of suffering, to be sure, but the sisters take the brunt of the particularly male brutality that rears its head throughout. More potently, Ariyike and Bibike suffer so that Andrew and Peter do not have to. The lot which they are handed is one that is commonly placed at the feet of young women, who must take the position of caregiver at the expense of their own girlhood.
Black Sunday’s explanatory delivery can seem callous, initially. However, it becomes apparent that Abraham’s intention is not to belittle the situations which Ariyike and Bibike find themselves in, but to illustrate the dissociation which individuals can experience in the wake of traumatic situations. This commitment to portraying the reality of distressing experiences at the expense of writing titillating torture porn is admirable, and as a result Ariyike and Bibike’s respective stories possess a degree of intimacy.
The downside of Abraham’s somewhat restrained narrative voice is that Black Sunday reads, at times, as being unrefined. Ariyike’s so-called religious extremism, so focused on in the blurb, is embarrassingly pale. When I read the words “religious extremism,” I don’t want to read about a middle class pastor’s wife who reads scripture on a radio show. That’s not extreme. Give me a cult. Give me a plot device worthy of the descriptor it has been given.
The unfinished aspect becomes especially grating in Black Sunday’s final section. The novel spends almost all of its pages creating a huge panoramic establishing shot. Abraham meticulously creates four individual characters and follows them across many years, only to provide a conclusion which feels rushed, leaving the reader with a dissatisfied overall experience. As much as I enjoyed reading the build up in Black Sunday, I don’t pick up a novel with the express idea of reading one long first act with a haphazard attempt at resolution tacked onto the end. One long first act with no real conclusion? Sure. I’m a big fan of Beckett. I’m happy to read a narrative that is one huge build-up to nothing, when done right. But there is a difference between a purely conceptual text, and a text which spends so much time concentrating on the introduction that it forgets the necessity to provide an ending. Unfortunately, I think Black Sunday may be the latter.
Any Cop?: With an extra 100 pages dedicated to comprehensively rounding off its plot, Black Sunday could have been something truly powerful.