With A Spell of Good Things, Ayòbámi Adébáyò calls us to be aware of these social inequalities, whether or not we acknowledge that they exist…
By Sybil Fekurumoh
A Spell of Good Things strides along as Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s second novel, six years after her stellar debut with Stay with Me. Adébáyò interrogates the harsh realities that are pervasive in contemporary Nigeria. Set in the 2000s, A Spell of Good Things is timely, exploring classism, an ever-relevant subject to date. This happens against a backdrop of Nigeria’s failing political system, where it only takes a series of small, isolated incidents to escalate and alter the trajectory of affairs. Adébáyò summarises the jarring disparity in class divide, the fickle nature of the middle class, and the ricocheting effects of social inequality.
The novel follows two families on polar sides of wealth. One, slowly descending to penury and the brink of homelessness, and the other, affluent, and forming family alliances, with enough security to fall back to. Yet, there’s still so much to lose. Eniolá is a teenage boy forced to grow too quickly when his father, Bàbá Eniolá, suddenly loses his job as a history teacher, and his mother, Ìyá Eniolá, takes the reins as the provider. Eniolá spends his days maneuvering school and unpaid fees, and apprentices at a local tailor shop as a getaway. When pushed to the extremes, his family resorts to begging, and he naively becomes a politician’s mercenary.
Wúràolá is the “golden girl” of the well-off Makinwa family. She is a young doctor who is now weary in her medical practice, and in a relationship with Kúnlé, the son of a family friend. When Kúnlé proposes marriage, their union sates both families, especially Wúràolá’s mother, Yèyé, who is already concerned about Wúràolá “passing her prime” at 28. Her marriage to Kúnlé is also set to strengthen their social and political ties. While they never meet directly, Wúràolá and Eniolá’s lives intertwine to climax the story, as they reckon with violence, power tussle, and political instability.
While Adébáyò’ never says where the book is set, the location hides in plain sight. Like Stay with Me, A Spell of Good Things is set in Osun State, in southwestern Nigeria. One can speculate that the events unfold in Ilesha, the same town as her debut. Both novels share a similarity in that Adébáyò’ traverses societal issues that stare at us on a daily basis, however hard we try to look away or shield ourselves from them.
Each chapter opens with a different person’s point of view. In many ways, the story is as much Wúràolá and Eniolá’s, as it is the others that make up the story, and with them. Adébáyò avoids romanticising the situation of these characters but approaches them with benevolence. Through her characters, Adébáyò addresses mental health and domestic violence and exposes human bias and prejudice toward class, gender, motherhood, and ethnicity, and how people come to terms with and navigate such realities.
Bàbá Eniolá’s depression is described as a darkness that has existed since his teens. These bouts of depression, which “came and went like a seasonal cold,” gripped him after his layoff, so much that he could no longer get up from the bed and contemplate suicide. Mama Eniolá’s decision to choose one child’s education over the other is also forgivable when weighed with other of her life’s foes.
Yèyé believes that bad things will happen, but occasionally, good things happen as a respite. A momentary relief from the constant warring with humanity. She recognises that one is only a wink away from penury and that “life was war, a series of battles with the occasional spell of good things,” thus causing her to hoard gold and accumulate properties as security. Through Yèyé and her daughters, generational differences are also evident, and Adébáyò’ showcases how generational values remain relevant or decline. Having married into wealth to escape poverty, Yèyé merely performs a duty and considers her devotion to her husband, Òtúnba, as an act of love; meanwhile, Wúràolá rejects a love interest because she could not reciprocate the love. Also, unlike Yèyé, who upholds society’s expectation of servitude from women, Mótárá, her second daughter, rejects such notions.
Adébáyò has written a pertinent story of the Nigerian condition in A Spell of Good Things, highlighting structural amenities such as quality healthcare, power supply, and education that remain inaccessible. It is also interesting that both families in the novel acknowledge the importance of education, but only to the extent of what education can guarantee. But it all seems like a wild goose chase because while one family strives for education as the golden ticket out of poverty, the other family underpins education with connections and family ties. As Yèyé admits, “Parentage would often matter more than your qualifications.” Adébáyò also reveals the nature of Nigerian politics as it correlates with stomach infrastructure. This politics can be relayed, in simple terms as “something that can fit in a bag of rice or salt” rather than one with a manifesto.
Each section of A Spell of Good Things starts with excerpts from other books written by contemporary African writers, and with each excerpt, an expectation is set. Ayòbámi Adébáyò also celebrates her Yoruba roots and “Nigerianness” as she uses Nigerian English in her dialogue, with Yoruba references and the use of diacritics. There is no glossary at the end of the novel, and it is unmistakable that the intended audience is Nigerian. By so doing, Ayòbámi Adébáyò joins writers, such as Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, who advocate for the recognition and promotion of Nigerian English, and the more active use of it. Being a millennial myself, I’m also thoroughly entertained by the 2000s setting, which evokes a strong sense of nostalgia with its vivid portrayal of the mores of that era.
Ayòbámi Adébáyò has written another book about the Nigerian experience, and perhaps temporarily, puts the conversation about the death of Nigerian literature to rest. It is easy to profess egalitarianism in the face of the social inequality that abounds around us, and it becomes convenient to turn to philosophy, culture, religion, or academia, to answer the question of why social stratification exists in the first place. With A Spell of Good Things, Ayòbámi Adébáyò calls us to be aware of these social inequalities, whether or not we acknowledge that they exist, because, as in the words of philosopher, Joseph Ulatowski, “True beliefs pick out facts that exist independently of our beliefs about them.” Ultimately, in the face of these instabilities, no one is immune to bad governance, and Nigeria can happen to anyone.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.