BOOK REVIEW: The Girl with the Louding Voice
Abi Daré’s debut novel about a girl coming of age — through merciless tragedies — in Nigeria.
If the title didn’t, the first page of this book instantly made me want to listen to this as an audiobook rather than read it. The narrator is a 14-year-old girl, Adunni. She shares her experience beginning in her rural childhood home where her father forces her to become the third wife to a significantly older man, an arrangement that allows her father and two brothers to pay an annual fee and eat, something they couldn’t afford otherwise. Through a series of increasingly dire circumstances there, she eventually ends up being trafficked into domestic slavery for a very wealty business owner in Lagos.
But why did I so want it to be an audiobook? Reading the unique voice of Adunni takes getting used to for someone who speaks exclusively English. My tumbling over the sequence and rhythm of words disrupted the first bit of the book, and really forced me to think about my white American-ness. I took a minute analyzing why I felt so racist reading Adunni’s voice. It is very not-mine. It feels intimate, makes me feel vulnerable through translation, and makes me think about all the judgement that can come with the type of language people speak. (You can listen to Daré read an except here, and a sample of the audiobook here.)
One reason I was looking forward to reading this book to learn a bit more about Nigeria. There was a many-week wait on the Libby app (where I check out books from the Baltimore library), so when I finally had access I was particularly excited about it. I’ve read Chimamanda Adichi’s Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, and am making up for lost time, AKA the 25 or so years I lived without ever reading any text written by an African author, let alone taking place in a country in Africa, let alone more than one book about the same country. Nigeria is the most populated African country, and the wealthiest, so it makes sense Nigerian authors have been most accessible (and popular) in my immediate circle. (Side note: if anyone has recommendations for further reading about or set in Nigeria, please comment!)
I both loved and struggled through this book.
I loved Adunni, her innocence and sense of humor, her ability to live through horrific and repeated abuse from person after person after person, and her dream to be a girl with a louding voice. I wanted to see her through her future, to read what becomes of her. I would love to read a sequel. She’s easy to champion and love, and she’s the only character the reader gets to know with depth.
From Daré we learn Nigerian patriarchy is physically dangerous, regardless to the money, education, or knowledge you have as a woman — every female character that chooses to speak against patriarchy is punished in one way or another in this book, usually with actual physical violence. Similarly, class determines everything and is brutally enforced, Adunni is consistently kneeling to elders, is forced into first marriage (including rape), then domestic slavery. While the narration is consistently light via the voice of the 14-year-old and the blind optimism she carries, these parts of the book are powerfully painful to read. Enough that I ended up having nightmares where I was living through Adunni’s experiences.
I’m left wondering, and largely as a result of having so little exposure to Nigeria, the intentions of take aways from this book. I felt a little bit tense at the end, wondering if white Americans can read this and just come away with more pity in their eyes and saviorism on their minds, like, oh that poor Nigeria, all that violence and patriarchy. I know every country, every village, is more nuanced than that, but I didn’t gather much nuance. Adunni did experience good people in challenging situations, and in all of them class and gender defined their experiences. I don’t really believe in bootstraps mentality, but even knowing that it felt particularly hopeless and devastating to see how many one in a million situations Adunni had to experience to get even the smallest step toward her own best interest.
Overall, the fast pace, unique language (to my white American life), loveable protagonist, and anticipated release of this book brought me excitement and are pushing me to think critically about the intersection of micro and macro societal circumstances that allow young women to survive and thrive in the world.
Next up? Likely On Following the Dots, a book written by my former boss, Delshan Baker, and published just this month!