Review: Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta

everything_good_will_comeWhen I finished reading this book, I wanted to read it all over again. I felt it opened a window wide and I couldn’t get enough of the scene it framed. I wanted to go back and pick over everything slowly, paying more attention to each detail, thinking about each situation, analysing each character.

I am planning to move to Lagos, where Sefi Atta‘s Everything Good Will Come is set. Sure, the book opens in 1971, one year after the end of the Biafran war, and ends in 1995. A lot has changed, since then. Or has it? In any case, I don’t think people change much. Skyscrapers may rise and roads may be built, but the old attitudes remain, by and large unexamined and unchallenged. This may sound pessimistic of me, but let’s just say that I don’t want to expect too much. I tell myself I should be prepared for sexism, corruption and hypocrisy. It’s very much present in the world anyway, and from what I have heard and read, rife in Nigeria. I should remember that Don (my fiance) is an exception, and not the rule.

Anyway, back to the book. I read Atta’s A Bit of Difference a couple of years ago and, since then, have wanted to try her other stories. Unfortunately, never having won a ‘major’ award (i.e. one that is based in the West), Atta’s books are not easy to find in Malaysian bookstores. (Sad to say, even Kinokuniya, or at least certain Kinokuniya buyers, is guided by endorsements by British and American lit awards’ committees.) I found Difference in a remainders store (BookXcess) and ordered Good from ABEBooks.

Everything Good Will Come is partly a coming-of-age novel. Its protagonist is Enitan who is eleven at the start of the book. At this point, living with her warring parents in Lagos, she becomes friends with her new nextdoor neighbour, a Muslim half-caste called Sheri.

The backcover blurb gives the impression that the novel is about the two girls, but Enitan is the focus. It’s her life, her struggles – with her parents, at school and university, as a working adult, and in her romantic relationships – that are portrayed in detail. And it’s from her point of view that the story is told. Sheri drifts in and out of Enitan’s life, serving as a contrast in personality and circumstances. She is an interesting, complex and contradictory character. On one hand, she panders to society’s expectations of women, but on the other, she plays the system to her advantage.

Enitan and Sheri lose touch in adolescence. Enitan goes to boarding school and university in England, and Sheri becomes Miss Nigeria. When they reconnect in adulthood, Enitan, now a lawyer, is doing her National Service and Sheri is mistress to a married man. She appears to be totally submissive, but a development in the plot reveals hidden depths.

I like Sheri whose way of thinking I don’t agree with, but whose reasons for acting the way she does, I can understand. She is practical and kind, but also ruthless when she has to be. I find her a more natural and believable character than Enitan whose idealism and actions seem somewhat contrived. It’s like Atta decided to use this book and Enitan to make several points. Enitan sometimes talks like she’s making a speech, and the narrative too often breaks into clumsy and heavy-handed social and political commentary. Still, I enjoyed reading it all and took it as a way of educating myself about Nigeria’s history that was more entertaining than reading a wiki entry, academic text or history book.

A few reviewers on Goodreads mention how unlikeable Enitan is. I didn’t warm to her immediately, but I admired her awkwardness; her uncertainty; her prickly, contrary nature. I felt she was brave. I liked the way she stood up to her parents and the way she could admit to her mistakes and backtrack on wrong decisions. I liked the way she could feel love and yet be disgusted by some things about her lovers. Sure, she often seems like Atta’s mouthpiece, but otherwise, her flaws make her real. When she’s not being used to hammer home the author’s opinions, Enitan feels as equally lovable and annoying as my dearest friends.

I’m not entirely sure about the ending though. Enitan makes two decisions and I understand and applaud one, but am still in two minds about the other. But then again, I realise, as I type this review, that the reason for my doubts isn’t a very good one. It’s based on the personal history of one of the characters, and the empathy I feel as a result of what I know. Aren’t Enitan’s actions heartless? How will her husband cope, considering what he has gone through before? I realise my reaction reflects the sort of person I am and reminds me of the bad decisions I’ve made because of this anxiety I feel about being inconsiderate. It amazes me that my response to Enitan’s decision should reveal something about me to myself. It makes me love this book even more.

Finally, I must include this passage, in which Enitan talks about what Africa is to her, as opposed to how it is portrayed in books written by white writers:

sefi-atta
Sefi Atta

‘… books that described a colonial Africa so exotic I would want to be there myself, in a safari suit, served by some silent and dignified Kikuyu, or some other silent and dignified tribesman. Or a dark dark Africa, with snakes and vines and ooga-booga dialects. My Africa was a light one, not a dark one: there was so much sun. And Africa was an onslaught of sensations, as I once tried to explain to a group of English work mates, like eating an orange. What single sensation could you take from an orange? Stringy, mushy, tangy, bitter, sweet. The pup, seeds, segments, skin. The sting in your eyes. The long lasting smell on your fingers.’

Life is not all positive or all negative; all painful or all pleasurable. Life is everything, and everything is everything. The good will come, so will the bad. But to remember that ‘everything good will come’ (eventually?) is a good thing. The title is like a prayer, a mantra. It’s significant to me right now, and gives me hope.

 

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