Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta – Review
This review first appeared in the PEN Melbourne December Quarterly of 2012
“Everything Good Will Come” is available from Spinifex Press Australia
Sefi Atta’s debut novel is a moving and delightful read that leaves you with that increasingly evanescent but wonderful feeling of hope. After reading it one can’t escape the question many of us are asking these days – in a world where we are all connected just what kind of human being do I want to be? Should I care that others are suffering? And if not, for how long can I get away with being willfully blind?
From the moment it begins, this novel gives you a wonderfully vivid image of the world inhabited by Enitan Taiwo, Sefi Atta’s female protagonist, who in the early pages is just 11 years old, growing up in modern day Lagos. Reflecting on the television programs of the day for example, she writes: “…oblivious to any biased messages I was receiving, I sympathised with Tarzan (those awful natives!)…and memorised the happy jingles of foreign multinational companies…”
You find yourself holding your breath, wanting nothing but the best for her as she develops from a curious young girl, to a teenager who begins to realise that the world can be a harsh place. She emigrates to the UK for school, where she befriends Robin Richardson, a spunky English girl who can’t pronounce her Rs. The resulting teasing from classmates is aptly described in one word – “Twagic”. You remember your own personal anecdotes when she returns to Nigeria – a questioning, observant and passionate young woman, exploring among other things romantic love while trying to find her place in a complex world.
Perhaps one of the most appealing attributes of this book is that it is littered with heroines but Atta does not beat you over the head with their struggles and triumphs. There is Sheri – the saucy half black half white neighbour. Flawed, unapologetic and wise. From the outset it is apparent that she is not like other girls, and throughout the novel she remains a refreshing original. And what of the firebrand Grace Ameh – mother, wife, journalist. Determined to speak, driven by the principle that she has a voice and should therefore use it to make a difference. And let us not forget Enitan’s mother, who for reasons more complicated than first appears, has turned to the church to escape her own personal challenges. As the main protagonist insightfully points out however “Had she turned to wine or beer, people would have called her a drunkard”. You get the impression that these women are who they are, they just do what they must. And not for the glory either. Their resilience and sense of humour, in a world that has made the mistake of overlooking and underestimating them, is magnificent.
The men in this novel are not just token characters either. Mike, the architect-turned-artist wonders why more people don’t know about the Nigerian goddess Oshun. The Yoruba religion has after all been exported to places as far away as Cuba and Brazil. Enitan’s father Sunny wants more for his daughter than a life in the kitchen. Enitan is clearly a fan of his courage and desire to take on a system that has turned many into cowards by default.
The book’s appeal also comes from its ability to touch on numerous contemporary and universal themes with ease and wit. Multiple issues that matter to us in our everyday lives are covered without becoming tedious. The father-daughter relationship for example is more colourful as Enitan observes the varying presumptions when she expresses a political opinion versus when her father does. “Whenever I stood on my soap box, he wanted me to step down. When he stood on his, it wasn’t a soap box; it was a foundation of truth”. Romantic love has even more complexities in a relationship where one party is concerned that they may literally choke on the humility expected of them by society. The spoils of hard work and a well paying job become difficult to enjoy if your gated community is an island of illusion surrounded by poverty, injustice and inept government.
Enitan’s life and indeed those of the characters in this book is energetic, colourful and emotional in the way the lives of most Africans tend to be. No boredom or idleness here. You are left in no doubt that the bustling city of Lagos will force you to wrangle with it, with or without your permission.
This novel is rich in imagery, humour (Sheri is certain that downtown Lagos can turn even the Queen of England into a brawler), moments of tenderness and poignancy. But apart from all that it is just really well written. I’ve never been to Lagos, but Sefi Atta makes me feel like I’ve made a recent visit there.
For me personally it also drew me back to my own experience growing up in Kenya. Different country, different sides of the continent, but the themes are the same. From the hilarious shenanigans of workers in the house-hold, to being African in a foreign country, to the challenge of how best to deal with issues of poverty and corruption in a place where there is also much beauty, laughter and joy.