After a long drought where the only books I read were about Paris, in preparation for our vacation in the City of Light, I was finally able to sink my teeth into a novel that gripped me right away and refused to let go. I'm sure as readers we all go through a non-reading phase, but mine was particularly painful because I cannot remember going a day without reading a book since I was six years old! At first, when I found myself having difficulty concentrating on a book, I didn't let it worry me too much, I thought my reading mojo would return in a few days...it's been close to six months! Phew!
Anyway, back to the book. I'm not attempting a review here, but I cannot let the book that saved my reading life go by without a mention. "Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away" by Christie Watson is set in the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region of Nigeria. Its protagonist is a 12-year old girl who has to move from the big city of Lagos to her grandparents' house in the Niger Delta after her parents got a divorce. Not only was it difficult for her and her brother to come to terms with the change in their geographic status, but also, they went from being considerably well off to hovering just above the poverty line and from a Catholic household (their father was Catholic) to having to pray in the mosque as her mother's family were (Ijaw) Muslim.
Blessing, our protagonist, soon gets caught up in the politics of a big family: a polygamous and patriarchal grandfather; a grandmother who practises midwifery; a brother who gets involved with the Sibeye boys (young, misguided local boys who are given arms with which to sabotage an oil pipeline or to kidnap a foreigner working with one of the large oil companies.) Central to the story is how oil (first discovered in 1956) is ruining the lives of the people of the Delta. Where it should have been a blessing, it is now a curse. Read this article in the National Geographic for greater insights into the curse of the black gold.
This book has a lot to recommend it: not only is the storytelling spectacular but also, it's set in an area most of us rarely get to read about (sure, there is a lot of literature coming out of Nigeria these days but not too many stories are based in this volatile area of the country which is rich in oil-deposits and yet its people are among the poorest in the land. Casting Blessing's grandmother in the role of a midwife was a clever strategy because the reader gets to learn all about female circumcision, another evil that plagues Africa. The medical details are interesting to read and let me tell you why: Ms. Watson is a nurse by profession so she certainly knows how to keep it accurate and at the same time her lyrical storytelling ensures we are never bored. All is not gloom and doom however. Her novel celebrates the happy and gregarious Nigerian spirit in a way few books have done before...it was a delight to read.