A Spell of Good Things, a novel by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ, is more than a cautionary tale. It is a successful attempt at showing who we are, where we are, and what needs to be done.
In a 2022 reflection, Nigerian novelist and satirist, Elnathan John, argued in a thread of tweets that,
There is something about poverty in Nigeria existing close to wealth. You can see it but cannot touch. Someone is starving on the left, someone buying his girlfriend a house in Dubai on the right. There is something very violent about this. Something very wrong.
This socio-economic paradox enjoys clarity through the volatility that ensures the absence of continuous protection for the inhabitants of frail societies. This, therefore, underpins the painstaking examination of interlaced but opposite lives of the major characters that anchor Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s A Spell of Good Things.
ADÉBÁYỌ̀’S FICTION AS SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Adébáyọ became a force with her debut novel, Stay With Me. The success of the novel, which made the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, built the anticipation that welcomed her second novel, A Spell of Good Things. Written in four parts with epigraphs from renowned Nigerian novelists like Sefi Atta and Helon Habila, A Spell of Good Things is a riveting sophomore that examines topical issues in modern Nigeria, a nation where politics, power, inequality, poverty and family ties influence everyday life. These subjects are explored through the things that bind people in the same society, irrespective of their social classes.
Set in south-west Nigeria, the locale of Adébáyọ̀’s latest effort conveniently hybridizes the two social classes examined. Adébáyọ̀ successfully achieves this by infusing her characters into a society that communes with disruptive lack but is not alien to wealth. This is the case with Eniola and Wuraola whose lives transport readers in their journey through the novel. The novel opens with Adébáyọ̀’s sobering description of the painful dehumanization Eniola suffers at the newspaper stand where he visits to check for job openings for his father who, a victim of a terrible government policy, finds himself unemployed, and perhaps unemployable. The ‘wet weight of phlegm’ that reminds Eniola of his socio-economic inferiority at the newspaper stand and the description of his family’s descent to abject poverty after his father becomes surplus to requirement as a school teacher is the foundation for Adébáyọ̀’s expansive narrative.
With a structure that allows the swift movement of the narrative voice from the life and world of Eniola to that of Wuraola and vice versa, readers get the opposite of Eniola’s struggles with Wuraola. A young doctor and the daughter of Otunba Makinwa, who is a wealthy businessman, Wuraola’s characterization is achieved through her practice in an underequipped government hospital, her love life and entanglement with Kunle, a newscaster and the son of Professor Coker, an Ijesha elite like Wuraola’s father. Wuraola’s life offers insight into a world of affluence and wealth that is not distant from the poverty Elnathan John described. Burdened by the physical and psychological impact of a shambolic work environment and the scarcity of qualified personnel as a direct consequence of the push factors that incentivize migration, Wuraola’s disinterest in the vain things that often preoccupy the rich shows her proximity to those in pain.
POVERTY, WEALTH AND THE UNNEGLECTABLE NEXUS
A striking accomplishment of A Spell of Good Things is its reflective and refractive ability. It not only shows the ills that taint our society but also points to the repercussions while emphasizing the urgency of fixing them. Lack and poverty are explored through society’s relegation of empathy, the implications of empowering greedy and apathetic politicians like Honourable Fesojaiye, and the systemic failure that grows inequality and injustice. The failure of modern Nigeria is not loosely interrogated here, as done in some novels. It is done through the eyes of society’s smallest unit (the family) with a careful reflection of disintegration.
Adébáyọ̀ projects poverty in the life of Eniola and his family with harrowing images that pierce the heart of readers. When Eniola and Busola are not being whipped for their parent’s failure to pay fees, their mother is either out begging for assistance or ‘probably searching dunghills for used plastics and bottles she could resell’, or her painful decision to pick a child’s education over the other as the family’s collective effort cannot keep both in school. More pity is evoked with Eniola’s father whose slow decline hurts his family and readers. His good days have become faint memories for his wife and children. Resigned to fate, he lives his days in silence, bereft of the resources that once made him a proud husband and a good father, also bereft of words. His powerlessness in the painful decimation of his family initiates the conversation on the place and responsibility of government, power and greed, the prioritization of a protection scheme for the vulnerable and the moral burden in the duty of the society’s elite to the downtrodden.
Beyond the examination of lives on different social strata, Adébáyọ̀’s gripping prose also explores vulnerability in its complex form. Vulnerability in A Spell of Good Things is not only limited to the poverty that exposes Eniola Oni’s family. Vulnerability is crafted to show the importance of equity, empathy and justice in any society. Poverty and society’s failure to protect children expose Eniola and Busola to the forms of danger and horror that should not litter the path of children and teenagers. They are made to endure whips, hunger and mockery, persuaded to navigate the town’s busy spots pretending to be beggars with disabilities. It is then seen as a surprise when the privileged Wuraola also suffers. Career, exposure and wealth do not protect her from abuse and horror in her relationship with Kunle whose perpetration of domestic abuse is nurtured by Nigeria’s deep-rooted patriarchy.
The same is the fate of Kingsley, a doctor and Wuraola’s admirer, who is committed to his profession but avoidably dies of Lassa fever contracted in the line of duty. In the absence of a proper isolation unit and the unavailability of an antiviral medication like Ribavirin, vulnerability is pored over to underpin the politics of caste and to underscore society’s duty to its vulnerable ones: children, women, the disabled, the poor, the unemployed, the under-protected workforce.
Harrowing but not completely dark, the lives of Eniola and Wuraola coalesce through a well-knit but predictable manifestation of fate in a climax that offers more pain and ruin through death and loss. Adébáyọ̀ does not entirely go for closure but attempts to shrink the divide that separates the rich and the poor, the lord and the pleb, the oppressor and the oppressed. This climax provides more nuance to Wuraola’s mother’s reflection when she says, ‘Life is war, a series of battles with occasional spells of good things.’
A remarkable exploit of Adébáyọ̀’s latest novel is the language that invites readers to its geographical setting. Adébáyọ̀ richly elevates the Yoruba language as a tool of narration while paying keen attention to the language’s diacritics. The Yoruba language serves the writer’s intent in delivering a Nigerian story that is not tied to urban Lagos. In names, food, dialogue and its portrayal of the Yoruba folklore, A Spell of Good Things centres on the peculiarities of modern Nigeria through the lens of a Yoruba town. Without considering the temptation of economics and the wider readership offered by the West, the novel invites everyone to its locale by not providing clues such as the translation of Yoruba expressions, the italicization of Yoruba words and the linguistic Westernization of Yoruba cuisine and traditional concepts.
Enunciated through the thoughtfulness in Adébáyọ̀’s creativity, A Spell of Good Things is more than a cautionary tale. It is a successful attempt at showing who we are, where we are, what needs to be done and how close social classes are to each other when the numbers say otherwise. It is a sobering tale that spares no one⎈
A Spell of Good Things
460 pp. Ouida Books, February 2022
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