The celebrated and often critically acclaimed debut novel, ‘The girl with the louding voice’ was published in 2020. Authored by Abu Daré, it tells the inspirational story of a teenage Nigerian girl called Adunni who has to endure the trauma of becoming the third wife of an old man in a poverty-stricken rural village household – and who then escapes and becomes a maid in an exploitative, rich and frankly deplorable household in Lagos; throughout the book she struggles, above all else, to find her freedom through some form of education and, in so doing, to honour the memory and wise counsel of her dead mother. Despite the unrelenting suffering that Adunni experiences, the novel is often very funny and its frequent use of Adunni’s caustic similes is priceless. (Her evocation of vile smells and physical ugliness is superb.) It also presents a devastating critique of social customs and practices in Nigeria itself.
The novel begins with some graphic and unsparing descriptions of family life in Ikati village many miles from the urban centres of the country. Overall the writing deploys the version of English which Adunni has picked up from both her mother, the television and a smattering of books. For example, of her father she says: ‘Papa is one hard man, always stronging his face and fighting the whole everybody in the house … when my father is in the house, everybody must be doing as a dead person.’ She tells us that the first wife of her husband, Lanbake, ‘always be painting her face with white powder like a ghost.’ Another woman, Tola, has the ‘face of a agama lizard.’ When she sees her older brother at a well she remarks: ‘The well it was belonging to my grandfather-father. He builded it with mud and steel and sweat … my mama she was telling me story of how my grandfather father kill hisself inside the well. He just fall inside one day … for three days, nobody knows where he was … until the well was starting to give foul odour of rotten egg and somebody mess. The day they find my grandfather father’s body, it swell up as if leg, nose, stomach, teeths and buttocks is all pregnants at the same time.’
As the book progresses, Adunni, does her level best to help her very sick friend, a young mother called Khadija. We, the reader, begin to sense that something is so seriously wrong with Khadija that she is about to die. After a long bus journey with Adunni, Khadija finds herself beside a river and falls asleep; as she does Adunni imagines that she, Khadija ‘is warring with God for her soul.’ Adunni tries to alleviate her friend’s suffering and so she begins to talk to her about everything that comes to mind. But now, so ill, Khadija remains scarcely responsive.
Adunni then asks her, ‘You still here? Khadija? You are still here?’ Kahdija can only moan in reply. At this point the fourteen year old Adunni begins to disclose her reflections and beliefs about Death. These reflections reveal a distinct perspective and way of thinking about the forms that our inevitable death may take. She relates her thoughts in the following way:
‘I think of Death, how he come and take my mama and kill her dead. Death, he is tall like the Iroko tree, with no body, no flesh, no eyes, only mouth and teeths. Plenty teeths, the thin pencil and the sharp blade for biting and killing. Death is not having legs. But it have two wings of nails and arrows. Death can fly, and kill the bird in the air, strike them from the sky and fall them to the ground, scatter their brain. It can be swimming too, swallow the fishes inside the river. When it is wanting to kill a person, it will fly, keeping hisself over their head, sailing like a boat on top of the water of the soul, waiting for when it will just snatch the person from the earth. Death can take form of anything. It clever like that. Today it take form of a car, cause a accident, tomorrow it can shape hisself a gun, a bullet, a knife, a coughing blood sickness. It can take form of a dry palm frond and flog a person until the person is dying. Like Lamidi the farmer. Or as a rope to squeeze all the life from a person, like Tafa, Asabi’s lover. Is Death following Khadija now? And if Khadija die, will it begin to be following me too?’
A short time later Adunni declares: ‘Just then a thunder scatter boom the sky. It is Death making a announcement, giving us big big warning.’ And soon Khadija does die – tragically abandoned by the man who was her one true love.
I enjoyed reading ‘The girl with the louding voice’ and becoming acquainted with one cultural way of thinking about Death. More significantly, the novel stands as a timely feminist and liberationist work. (On occasion I somehow felt that it ‘tried too hard’ to make its unrelenting major point about gender discrimination in Nigeria.) I also thought that Abu Daré’s comment (through Adunni) about the speaking of English can never afford to be overlooked: so, from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle to learn anything like what passes for ‘correct’ English, Adunni remarks that: ‘Now I know that speaking good English is not the measure of the intelligent mind and sharp brain.’
The book became a New York Times Bestseller and, among other successes, a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ choice. Published by Sceptre it was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for ‘first time novelists’ and Abu Daré was included in The Observer’s list of 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2020.