Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham

Set in Lagos, Black Sunday is a tale of four children attempting to overcome the misfortune placed upon them by their parents. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, for even though the novel is elegantly crafted to give us the perspectives of all four siblings, each chapter feeling like a contained story in and of itself, there is a real drive to the story as we eagerly turn the pages to find out what will happen to these children next.

Originally from a middle-class, educated family, their mother loses her job. Shortly afterwards their father is swindled out of all of his money by a pastor at their church and the family are left destitute. Their mother runs away to New York, leaving them behind with their father who soon abandons them to his mother. Their easy life is now filled with the worry of money and hunger.

Each sibling takes the loss of their parents differently. Peter is the youngest. He loses his hand because no one takes him to hospital after an accident and ultimately finds solace in words:

‘Poems are tears of the soul. You had never imagined that poems could help a person survive. Then you read “Nightfall of Soweto” by Oswalk Mtshali, then you read “Letter to Martha” by Dennis Brutus. Then you read.’ 

Both brothers are sent away to boarding school when their sisters begin to earn enough and Andrew’s inability to speak to fathers leaves him unable to save his girlfriend from rape. The twin sisters, Bibike and Ariyike, are the oldest and they soon take on the responsibilities of earning money. Their experience of Lagos is heavily coloured by their sex. Every encounter with the world involves negotiating male desire. At one point, Bibike says,

‘All women are owned by someone, some are owned by many; a beautiful girls’ only advantage is that she may get to choose her owner. If beauty was a gift, it was not a gift to me, I could not eat my own beauty, I could not improve my life by beauty alone. I was born beautiful, I was a beautiful baby. It did not change my life. I was a beautiful girl. Still, my life was ordinary. But a beautiful woman was another type of thing. I had waited too long to choose my owner, dillydallying in my ignorance, and so someone chose me. What was I to do about that?’

While their paths are different, all the narratives are suffusing by a love of storytelling. They tell each other stories, or riddles. They listen to their grandmother telling them all the old tales and these tales are valued. The idea of the importance and softness of their Grandmother’s Ondo Yoruba dialect lifts the hunger and effort of their lives into something magical. It is this love of storytelling that makes the novel itself such a delight to read.

Black Sunday is eloquent, painful, funny and written with such a sharp eye for detail and love of language you’d be hard-pressed not to love it. A fabulous debut out this August, I’m already eager to see what Tola Rotimi Abraham writes next.

I’ll be reviewing Pew by Catherine Lacey next.