Published by Canongate, this is a Nigerian YA book that was gifted to me by NetGalley a couple of months back. I’ve been really behind with my reading list, so, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one. Set initially in 1996 Lagos, this title is told from four siblings’ perspectives; each one expressing their search for agency, love, and meaning in a hypocritical society. I think, at its core, this is a tale of postcolonial feminism spanning two decades. Although their brothers feature, this novel is predominantly about two women coming of age and devising their own distinct paths to independence, despite the constraints of systemic misogyny and childhood trauma. Though Nigerian women are by no means alone in their fight against patriarchy, if you have seen any #WeAreTired headlines recently, then this title will do a good job at providing some context around the topic.
One evening, four siblings; Bibike; Ariyike; Peter and Andrew, learn that their mother – the sole provider of the family – has been made redundant due to political changes where she works. With poverty drawing near, the family is seduced by the New Church, an institution led by a charismatic pastor who engages their father in a “unique” business opportunity. Their father, however, is a wife beater, who perpetually squanders their money on ridiculous investments. Soon their mother abandons them, followed quickly by their father. Now raised by their ailing grandmother, each child – particularly the girls Bibike and Ariyike – must do what they can to survive, even if that means going against everything they believe in. Ariyike uses the church to gain power, while Bibike swears off religion and pursues a career in the beauty industry. While the two boys move to America to pursue better lives for themselves.
There’s no doubt that this book deals with some very complex themes, including abandonment and poverty, that are all deftly contextualised through references to wider Nigerian culture. I would recommend, however, that any survivors of sexual assault proceed with caution with this title; its rape scenes are not for the faint hearted. The discomfort I felt whilst reading certain passages was somewhat jarring and acted as a stark reminder of what can happen when certain behaviours are perpetually excused. Indeed, in this male-dominated world, beset by both political and moral corruption, Bibike and Ariyike must find their own way to freedom, rising above their childhood trauma. Interestingly, religion seems to be a pervasive theme throughout this narrative, consistently prodding the hypocrisy of the church. It asks, why are womxn expected to be dutiful servants to the lord, while men are seemingly forgiven for the most abhorrent of acts? Why, while people are suffering, do so many turn away from those in need? While this makes for an often depressing tale, Abraham’s prose juxtaposes the darkness eg. “if beauty was a gift, it was not a gift to me, I could not eat my own beauty, I could not improve my life by beauty alone.‘ Beautiful sentences like this, make Black Sunday both observant and lyrical.
I have to admit, however, that I have never really been a multiple POV (point of view) fan. I can just about deal with two, but four pushed me to my absolute limit. The episodic nature of the POVs didn’t quite hang together enough for me and I got fed up with being jolted from character to character. None of the loose ends were tied up in a way that was satisfactory and I could not connect to the two young boys at all. Of course, I am very biased. I am neither a male nor Nigerian, but I did feel like this book might have benefitted from sticking purely to Bibike and Ariyike’s narratives. These girls were far more engaging and I thought that “sisterhood, fate and female resistance” were meant to be the hooks of the entire title anyway. The theme of female empowerment itself, however, didn’t become clear to me until I was almost finished reading. Admittedly, I could not always stomach the violence that arose throughout. I am aware that this seems ignorant for me to say and I appreciate that these events are a very harsh reality for many, but I had to be in a certain mindset to digest the many lessons this book had to offer.
It is a common mistake, to hear a story about tragedy and disbelieve it because the telling is off. We think to ourselves, how does the storyteller know this? We are asking the wrong question. The right question, is why is the storyteller telling me this story?
Of course, misogyny is not something that is unique to Nigeria and (I hasten to add) not all men are scoundrels, but this title certainly captures the role patriarchy appears to play in Nigerian culture. As Abraham herself says, all of these characters are products of their society. The men in this title get away with what others allow them to get away with and people can only do the best they can when trying to escape poverty. Through Ariyike and Bibike, however, Black Sunday explores the question of what makes womxn sufferers, then participants and perpetrators of this patriarchy and in what way (if any) does religion facilitate this. While this was quite an uncomfortable read to sink my teeth into during a pandemic, it was a thought-provoking one nonetheless.
…just don’t read it before bed.