By Diana Evans
The childless protagonist of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Baileys-longlisted debut is so desperate to get pregnant that she breastfeeds a goat. It happens at the top of “the Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles” in southwest Nigeria, surrounded by drooling bearded men in green robes whose leader, Prophet Josiah, has been recommended to the barren Yejide by a pregnant customer at her hairdressing salon.
The goat must be white, he has instructed, and it must be pulled up the mountain single-handedly by the miracle seeker, arriving at the summit “without wound, blemish or a speck of another colour”. There follows some frenzied chanting, singing and dancing around the swaddled animal beneath a blazing sun, until eventually, despite her initial scepticism, as Yejide relates, “the goat appeared to be a newborn and I believed”.
It’s a comic scene, and it reminds me of the kind of high superstition my Nigerian mother often brings to bear on the subject of having children. If you drink through a straw while pregnant you will have a boy. Don’t do “that yoga” with a baby newly in your tummy or you will kill it. In Nigerian society, a childless woman is a tragedy, and considered to have probably brought it on herself. And it is not just her apparent inability to conceive that Yejide is up against. Her husband, Akin, has been coerced by his mother, Moomi, to take a second wife, in the hopes that he will get her pregnant instead. “You have had my son between your legs for two more months and still your stomach is flat,” Moomi tells Yejide when the new wife is also not yet pregnant. “Close your thighs to him, I beg you … If you don’t he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”
Such animated dialogue is a delight throughout the novel, and Moomi’s voice is the loudest among the vivid, persuasive characters who bring this Yoruba community to life. There is the rival hairdresser, Iya Bolu; Akin’s womanising brother, Dotun; and Yejide’s cruel stepmothers, who were also extra wives to her father, her own mother having died in childbirth.
The story is set in Ilesa, in the state of Osun, against the political chaos of the 1980s. It’s a place where students are shot during protests and elections are “nullified” by the military, where armed robbers give advance notice of their forthcoming crimes with chummily threatening letters, and the police take the day off work to join in.
Yet our heroine’s worsening nightmare of mistaken pregnancies and childlessness becoming child loss takes centre stage. When Yejide eventually does bear fruit, she discovers that at least two of her three children suffer from sickle cell disease. They are thus relegated to a life of pain, of waiting for the next “crisis”, and some of the most touching moments in the book arise from her attempts to describe how this feels. At the hospital with her son Sesan: “His hand gripped mine with pain-induced strength that crushed my knuckles together. I welcomed the pain in my hand, aware that it was only a tip of what he was feeling. I hoped that by holding me, he could transfuse his agony into my body and be free from it.”
Reminiscent of the men on the Mountain of Jaw Dropping Miracles, Akin’s role in all these, is unhelpful. It is the women who are strong and the men who mess things up, yet the patriarchal tradition is stringently held to – even after Akin has let his rage get the better of him and committed an atrocious act, Yejide still leaves his breakfast out for him in the morning.
The author, Ayobami Adébáyò has been tutored in writing by both Margaret Atwood and fellow Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and though there is still room for growth, she has a thoroughly contemporary style that is all her own. Her clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society is a welcome addition to her country’s burgeoning literary scene. Despite the intense sadness of her subject matter, she has produced a bright, big-hearted demonstration of female spirit, as well as the damage done by the boundlessness of male pride.