Friday, March 04, 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

'Everything changed after Mama found Father lying on top of another woman.'

Blessing and her brother Ezikiel adore their larger-than-life father, their glamorous mother and their comfortable life in Lagos. But all that changes when their father leaves them for another woman.

Their mother is fired from her job at the Royal Imperial Hotel - only married women can work there - and soon they have to quit their air-conditioned apartment to go and live with their grandparents in a compound in the Niger Delta. Adapting to life with a poor countryside family is a shock beyond measure after their privileged upbringing in Lagos.

Told in Blessing's own beguiling voice, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away shows how some families can survive almost anything. At times hilarious, always poignant, occasionally tragic, it is peopled with characters you will never forget.

As soon as I saw this listed on Netgalley the title and cover caught my eye, but it was really once I realised that the book is set in Nigeria I was sold on it and I had to have it! While I don't get around to reading a lot of books based in Nigeria,and thoroughly enjoy reading about other countries in Africa as well,  when I do, I find myself feeling connected in a way I don't think happens with any of those other countries.

From the outset I have to say that this book is unlike any other book I have read set in Nigeria. It is far more political than I expected it to be when I read the blurb, a much denser read touching on some incredibly deep subjects including the exploitation of the oil industry by some Western multinational companies, armed resistance fighters, tribal differences, domestic violence, interracial relationships and possibly most surprisingly to me there was a strong focus within the narrative on female circumcision and the resulting complications later in life for women who have been circumcised..

Two paragraphs in and I haven't even started to talk about the characters! Let me rectify that.

The main character in the novel is a young girl whose  name is Blessing. When the book opens Blessing is living a comfortable life in Lagos with her parents, and her older brother Ezikiel. Ezikiel has asthma and food allergies but these aren't really an issue because there is always adequate money for medication and for good care should anything goes wrong.

Blessing's life is turned upside down when her parents separate due to her father's infidelities, and it soon becomes apparent that her mother will not be able to support the family. They all therefore move to her grandparents compound in the Niger Delta region, where there is a strong oil company presence and problems with armed conflict between freedom fighter and the authorities. Blessing and Ezikiel go from air conditioned comfort and a fancy school in Lagos to a compound where even paying the electricity bill brings no guarantee that the power will be working, where the nearby river is polluted, and for Ezikiel comes food issues as there is no money to buy vegetable oil instead of the groundnut oil that causes him to have allergic reactions. And yet, there is still enough money for the grandfather, known as Alhaji, to go and have business meetings and consume Remy Martin whenever he wants too. Alhaji also has very strong belief in the power of Marmite to help in almost any situation (a la the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and his bottle of Windex). I am not sure that pop culture reference was necessarily the one that the author was trying for but I couldn't help but think of it each time the Marmite was used in the story

For Blessing, this strange new life brings danger and turmoil as she struggles to adapt to her new life, but it also means that she gains family connections that in the past were part of her life but only with a degree of distance. Now she gets to spend time with her grandmother, who starts to teach Blessing the skills associated with being a traditional midwife.

When Ezikiel is injured his dreams are also shattered, and the consequences are far greater than anyone could ever have foreseen. Life is further complicated when Blessing's mother meets a new man, one that both her grandparents have reservations about and Ezikiel is vehemently opposed to.

When I read that all too brief summary back, I am conscious that these topics sound very heavy, but one of the great strengths of this book is that the author manages to balance the heaviness with a memorable narrator that is sensitive and who is gradually learning the truths associated with both her previous life and her new life. Through her eyes we see the beauty of the land, the strength of the relationships, in addition to the topics I have mentioned above.

Part of the charm of the novel is that interspersed through the narrative there are many colloquialisms/traditional sayings (a bird does not change its feathers because the weather is bad.) and humour. For example, there is a wedding scene where there are both Nigerian and white men as guests. Blessing notes the following in relation to the white men:

Their stomachs were soft, like women's stomachs, hanging over their trousers. Since working with Grandma, I had grown used to being able to tell, just by looking at the softness of a woman's stomach, how many children she had borne. Some of the men were up to five births - full term.
The writing is also beautiful, and often quite lyrical. I found myself rereading sentences like the one below and taking moment to ponder the mental images that were conjured up by the writing on the page.

The sun had lowered and given the sky wedding jewelry, the river birds had begun their afternoon song
One of my favourite passages was when Grandma was talking to Celestine (her husbands second wife) about her new born babies

"Don't speak like that," said Grandma. "Even small ears can hear you. These sons are pieces of your own soul that have broken off. You are split into three now, Celestine. If you are hurting them, then you will hurt yourself.
One thing that should have come with this novel was a warning not to read the last 75 to 100 pages in public. I read them on the train on my morning commute and I found myself having to try unsuccessfully to stop myself from crying several times. Oh, and I loved some of the reveals in the epilogue too!

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is Christie Watson's first novel. On her website she mentions that she is working on her next novel which will have similar themes but very different characters, and I for one will be looking forward to reading it.

I love telling the stories. It is what us Ijaw women have always done. More and more is being written down. But the best stories are told. And the very best stories are told to a daughter. Saying them out loud keeps people alive.

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is due to be published in the UK on 6 March, and in the US on 10 May by Other Press.

**Please note that all quotes are taken from an e-galley and there may be some changes in the final publication.
Rating 4/5


  1. I like that you included some quotes in your review; it gives me an idea of the story-telling style. This does sound like a very good book, and I'm going to have to remember to buy myself a copy soon.

    Now, is this an adult book or a young adult? I ask, because I donate some of the YA reads to my school library, if they're not too racy. :)

  2. I think this is an adult book with a young adult protaganist. I don't know if it is being marketed as a young adult book though.

  3. This looks good. I will have to see if the library gets a copy!

  4. I have the e-galley of this one as well. I'm glad to see you were so impressed by it.

  5. This sounds like a wonderfully complex book and one that I think Amy would really like. I am not sure if she has read it already, but I am going to point her towards your excellent review. Thanks!

  6. I am sure she probably has already read it Zibilee.

    I was Darlene! I hope you like it too.

    Kailana, hopefully they will. I am not sure if you can still request it on Netgalley because it doesn't come out in the US until May.

  7. Glad to know you enjoyed this. I've been interested in finding African writers' works and they are hard to find sometimes. I will ask my library to purchase it and if they don't I'll get a copy myself in May-seems so long to wait though. :)

  8. I also love to travel to different places via books. It sounds like Nigeria is a good place to visit within the confounds of a book. Not sure I actually want to go there. At least as Westerners, we have a choice.

    This book sounds so good I just went over to Net Galley and requested it. Thanks for the thought provoking review and bringing this book to my attention.

  9. Hiya! I know you said you were interested so I thought I should let you know that I finally got my review up. I have to admit that I found this one was a bit difficult to write about.