[narrator Korede is at home in Lagos with her sister Ayoola and her mother]
Mum wanders in, one hand pinned to her half-formed gele. “Hold this for me.”
I stand up and hold the part of the gele that is loose. She angles herself to face my standing mirror. Her miniature eyes take in her wide nose and fat lips, too big for her thin oval face. The red lipstick she has painted on further accentuates the size of her mouth. My looks are the spitting image of hers. We even share a beauty spot below the left eye; the irony is not lost on me. Ayoola’s loveliness is a phenomenon that took my mother by surprise. She was so thankful that she forgot to keep trying for a boy.
“I’m going to Sope’s daughter’s wedding. The both of you should come. You might meet someone there.”
“No, thank you,” I reply stiffly.
Ayoola smiles and shakes her head. Mum frowns at the mirror.
“Korede, you know your sister will go if you do; don’t you want her to marry?”…
The gele is done, a masterpiece atop my mother’s small head. She cocks her head this way and that, and then frowns, unhappy with the way she looks in spite of the gele, the expensive jewellery and the expertly applied makeup.
Ayoola stands up and kisses her on the cheek. “Now don’t you look elegant?” she says. No sooner is it said than it becomes true.
commentary: Family life explained in a few sentences. This book is an unclassifiable wonder: it is extreme, and satirical, and full of weird violent moments. But it is also spot on and wince-making about life and sisters and families and dilemmas and men. And it is very very funny. And it is a short book: can easily be read in one sitting. It is divided up into brief scenes, so between that and the incredibly compelling plot you find yourself ripping through the pages.
It is also about a culture that is unfamiliar to many of us – upper middle class life in Nigeria – and is full of up-to-the-minute references to social media, technology, and when exactly it is OK to post something happy on Instagram after your boyfriend goes missing (whether you killed him or not is irrelevant to the etiquette). It is an absolute tour de force, and I loved it.
The title of the book is what film-makers call high concept: yes that is exactly what it is about. Korede is a hard-working nurse, looking out for her family and hoping something might come of her crush on one of the doctors at the hospital. Korede’s only chance to let off steam is with a patient in a coma – she sits with him and tells him (and us) what is going on.
Her sister is something else – lazy, successful, beautiful and much-loved. Every so often Korede gets a call asking her to clean up Ayoola’s latest man-related disaster. Ayoola is so beautiful that she gets away with anything – but when she casts her eyes at Korede’s doctor friend, it seems that everyone’s lives are going to spiral even more out of control.
So isn’t that the best setup for a book that you can imagine? And Oyinkan Braithwaite totally makes good on it. The writing is simple but clever, and the funny lines keep coming. I love Ayoola’s response to Korede’s question “Do you not realize the gravity of what you have done?”
“This is victim shaming you know…”[Ayoola, just to reiterate, has killed a man.]
And this stylish construction:
The doorbell rings. She looks up expectantly and smirks. Surely, it can’t be – but, you know, life. Tade walks through the door.Crime fans will enjoy it as a kind of inverted mystery, and there is some history to be unravelled in it. But it is a great read for absolutely everyone.
This is the Wikipedia definition of a gele:
In Nigeria, the head-ties are known as gele, and can be rather large and elaborate. Although the gele can be worn for day-to-day activities, the elaborate ceremonial ones are worn to weddings, special events, and church activities. It is usually made of a material that is firmer than regular cloth. When worn, especially for more elaborate events, the gele typically covers a woman's entire hair as well as her ears. The only part exposed is her face and earrings on the lower part of her earlobes. The gele is accompanied by traditional local attire that may or may not have the same pattern as the headtie itself.
This YouTube video explains how to tie a Nigerian wedding gele. It is strangely mesmerizing to watch.
Thanks to BNS for the book.