TINY SUNBIRDS FAR AWAY ; CHRISTIE WATSON
1.The title comes from one of Nigeria’s indigenous birds – the Tiny Sunbird, Nectarinia Minulla, a year round resident, one of 28 species of sunbird.
2. The Author is a former paediatric nurse (at Great Ormond Street), proud of her profession. This is her first novel. She lives in South London with her Muslim husband and three children, having spent several years living in Nigeria. The book has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Awards, to be announced on 4 January next.
3.There is a very interesting short (2’30”) YouTube video interview with the author in which she describes the novel as the story of a family, how it fractures and how it can come together again. She speaks of drawing inspiration for some of the characters from her immediate family.
Brief Outline of the Novel
4.The novel is narrated by the heroine, Blessing, who for most of it is a 12/13 year old girl. It opens in Lagos where the family lives a comfortable middle class existence, with most modern comforts. This is soon shattered when the father (incidentally a drunkard and a wife-beater ) is caught with another woman, breaks up the marriage and the family (mother, Blessing and her older brother Ezikiel) is ejected from home and surroundings and forced to return to the mother’s family, living in rural squalor in a village near Warri, a city in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The rest of the novel takes place there. (Compare and contrast this with what would happen in the event of a marriage break up caused by the husband’s infidelity in Ireland, Britain or Europe.)
5. The culture shock is almost total. Their new home is racked by poverty and has little furniture, no electricity, no clean water (it has to be bought and carried – by the women – from a location 20 minutes away), no sanitation, and primitive harsh schooling. The grandfather who is a firm, if sometimes benign, head of a Muslim household, has no job and drinks heavily (Remy Martin!), while romancing about his qualifications as a petroleum engineer and his hopes of getting a management position in the nearby foreign owned oil company ( the Western Oil Company). Inter alia the household supports a driver/factotum, who has 4 wives and 17 children living nearby.
6. The family has no money, apart from what Blessing’s mother brought. The children are obliged to give up school since they cannot afford the fees, scuppering Ezikiel’s hopes of becoming a doctor. He is asthmatic and has a chronic allergy to nuts. His diet, therefore, suffers since they cannot afford palm oil for cooking but use ground nut oil to fry any meat (which must be fried to kill bacteria). His grandfather, Alhaji, a fool who believes Marmite is a universal cure, refuses to believe Ezikiel has allergies. Mocked by his companions for having no sons, he takes a second much younger wife who is almost a caricature, to the discomfiture of all, including his first wife, the grandmother.
7. As the story proceeds, the women have to provide. The mother gets a job in the bar in the oil company’s compound. The grandmother, it is revealed, is a local midwife, while the number 2 wife becomes a professional mourner. They get by. Ezekiel goes back to school, but Blessing’s return is vetoed by her grandfather; she becomes apprenticed to her grandmother. Meanwhile their environment begins to loom ever larger in the story. There is considerable local resentment and gang violence over the foreign exploitation of the local oil reserves and the effects this unregulated development is having on the environment – polluted river water, noxious atmosphere, etc – as well as the poverty and lack of job opportunities for the locals. Ezikiel, an innocent, is shot in an incident and hospitalised.
8. He is only released from hospital when his bill is paid. But by whom? Cue the white oil worker, Dan, who has befriended the mother and is picking up the family’s bills. In classic fashion he is at first rejected by the family, then gradually accepted as it appears he loves and intends marrying the mother. He finds a ghost job for the grandfather, who rebuffs him temporarily as his daydreams of a management position are exposed as fantasy. Ezikiel has become radicalised by his circumstances, accuses his mother of prostituting herself and attacks Dan as a foreign exploiter. He is expelled from school and eventually leaves to join one of the anti-oil company militias – the Sibeye Boys.
9. The story proceeds to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, with a hostage taking (Dan at his wedding), a terrorist incident with tragedy for the family (the involvement and death of Ezikiel) and an unexpectedly benign outcome involving the release of Dan without payment of ransom, his subsequent marriage to Blessing’s mother and their move to London, leaving Blessing behind. Fast forwarding, she still lives in the village, has children of her own, including twins (in some societies bad luck) and narrates her story to them.
Subtexts and Subplots.
10. There are several subplots. The main one, which is fascinating, concerns the work of a rural tribal midwife in Nigeria. A number of childbirths, uncomplicated, difficult or tragic, are described in unrelenting detail. It’s definitely not for the squeamish. The stoic acceptance of the delivery by the mothers, the cutting and stitching where necessary, all without anaesthetic, has considerable impact. As does the gradual initiation of young Blessing into the role of assistant and then full midwife.
11. On balance the midwife elements are positive and uplifting, showing the basic nobility of the women, mothers and those attending , in dire circumstances of poverty dirt and disease. Stalking this scenario, however, is a darker side, the presence, the threat, the tradition , of female genital mutilation. There is the delivery made more difficult and agonising for the unfortunate mother, who had suffered it and was sewn up again afterwards, the wish of another mother to have her new born daughter circumcised immediately , and the enduring image of the grandmother sketching out for Blessing ,with a stick in the dirt, the four types of female genital circumcision.
12. The other main subplot concerns the tension and interaction between the locals and the Western Oil Company. Not only is their environment and way of life suffering from the casual untrammelled exploitation of the oil in the ground, but there is the strong feeling among the locals that they are getting nothing in return, apart from a few security jobs. People are being brought in to do jobs the locals consider they could do. They are clear that there is corruption including of their own politicians going on, and inevitably there is a reaction. Armed militias develop, including some working for the oil company and terrorist incidents, hostage-taking and bunkering of oil become common.
13. White executives travel everywhere under armed guard. The family are at first suspicious of Dan’s relationship with Blessing’s mother; there are clearly precedents for local women working in the company’s bar to take up with white men just there on contract. The family’s expectation is that Dan will abandon Blessing’s mother when his contract is up. But Dan is made of softer stuff! His hobby is ornithology not sport (it is in his list of Nigerian birds that Blessing finds reference to the “tiny sunbird”). He resists rather clumsy advances from the number 2 wife, and he goes through with the marriage to Blessing’s mother even after the kidnap. How often does that happen in reality? The motives of Dan, his past history, and the emotions and attitude of Blessing’s mother to their relationship, are passed over – but then again the story is being told through the eyes of a young girl.
14.The book is an excellent easy read. I read the 400 pages at two sittings.
15. It is gripping, sympathetic and draws the reader into the story. It has moments of tragedy (some of the childbirths, Ezikiel), comedy (the foolish beliefs and antics of the grandfather and those of number 2 wife), suspense, at times fairly grisly (childbirths, the imagined fate of hostage Dan); and it has, presumably intentionally, a happy ending.
16. It delivers its messages gently but memorably. It paints the grim reality of life in an African country and village, without, incidentally, including most of the worst case scenarios. Food is short, but there is never famine. There are hints of potential sexual assault on Blessing (unless a bribe is paid) but no brutal rape. There is lack of electricity, with all that implies, lack of sanitation, without any of the attendant diseases, and very rudimentary hygiene in circumstances without clean water, again without the consequences that might be expected. There are darker glimpses – female genital mutilation for one, which Blessing declares she will never perform, references to the deliberate abandonment of twins as bad luck – though the number 2 wife has twins, and so ,we learn on the last page, does Blessing herself. There is also the hint of the African woman selling her body for much needed money, though Dan appears as the hero who does right!
17. In short, the book is a gentle and compelling introduction for a reader in Europe or North America to the daily realities of existence for many people in the developing world . At the same time there is emphasis in the book of what unites people everywhere. Ezikiel , and one of the new mothers, will not be treated medically unless they can pay, and Ezikiel cannot leave hospital without paying his bill in full. How different is that to practices in the USA? Christie Watson in her video claims her father-in-law in England, like the grandfather character, has both his own mosque and a snail farm! Again, viewers of one of the Lifestyle Channels on Sky TV may recall, from “A Life in Spain” one aspiring entrepreneur setting up a snail farm in Spain. The message is that people are the same everywhere. And Ezikiel, with his idealism and resentment, particularly against Dan, sounds like a typical rebellious teenager.
18. Does Christie tell the story convincingly through the eyes of her narrator, Blessing? We learn only at the end that she is now considerably older as she narrates, with children of her own. (There is one probable anachronism here; Ezikiel is buried in his Chelsea Essien shirt; Essien only signed for Chelsea in 2005, which makes the time line difficult. But then again, Christie may not support Chelsea!) She certainly makes a good fist of it, conveying much of how an adolescent girl would feel in those changed circumstances. Yet ultimately the premise that someone, irrespective of colour or race, would be transported so quickly and definitively from a comfortable middle class standard of living to a life with a poor family in the countryside, and then eschew a chance to leave and travel to London, is somewhat implausible.
19.On the other hand, the book is didactic – probably intentionally. And it achieves its purpose. It shows the gulf in lifestyles, with the subtext of how fortunate we are to be born where we are. And it does so in an entertaining, heart-warming and moving manner. It is no wonder it has been short listed for the Costa Awards Would I recommend it ? Definitely. An ideal Christmas present? Certainly.
20 December 2011