Review: 'Black Sunday,' By Tola Rotimi AbrahamTola Rotimi Abraham's wrenching novel follows a four young children in Lagos, Nigeria, whose comfortable life is blown apart when their mother loses her job, and their father abandons them.
Tola Rotimi Abraham's Black Sunday will destroy you. It won't be an explosion or any other ultraviolent thing. Instead, the novel will inflict a thousand tiny cuts on you, and your soul will slowly pour from them. Well, at least I think that's what Abraham wants to do. I'm sure that's the reason this gem of a novel is packed with so much poetry, pain, abandonment, abuse, heartbreak, and poverty.
Black Sunday follows twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike and their younger brothers, Peter and Andrew, who live with their parents in Lagos. They're not rich, but they live a calm, happy life. That changes when their mother loses her job for political reasons. Their father fails at everything he attempts and their mother is forced to take a job as a teacher. When she loses that second job, the family becomes desperate and joins a church in hopes of finding help. Instead of help, their father loans all their money to a man who disappears with it — and the family crumbles. First, their mother abandons them. Soon after, their father leaves the siblings with their grandmother and vanishes forever. Orphaned and poor, the children are forced to cope with everything life throws at them while trying to make enough money to eat.
The first standout element in Black Sunday is the writing itself. Abraham mixes poetry, Yoruba, pidgin English, and street philosophy into a mesmerizing style. The novel's chapters alternate between the point of view the four siblings, and each one has a distinctive voice that makes whatever they're talking about feel like something that happened to someone you know.
Besides the writing, there are a few underlying themes that give the novel a sense of cohesion. Religion is one of the strongest ones — right from the opening pages, when Bibike says "I like the idea of a god who knows what it's like to be a twin. To have no memory of ever being alone." The role religion plays gets progressively larger, morphing into a promise of salvation that eventually crumbles when calamity strikes:
On some days, right after I said my night prayer, when I focused hard enough, I could hear the voice of God in the evening breeze. It sounded like an old man speaking softly in the distance. I did not know, in the way Pastor David apparently did, how to decipher what the voice was saying. But I believed that someday I, too, would understand His voice.
Once all the money is gone, the narrative takes a turn and every subsequent page is like a punch to the gut: "My family unraveled rapidly, in messy loose knots, hastening away from one another, shamefaced and lonesome, injured solitary animals in a happy world." Luckily, Abraham knows readers can only put up with so much, so she relents on the violence from time to time, gifting us brilliant moments of love and humor whose impact is amplified by the awfulness that surrounds them.
Being abandoned shapes the siblings. We hear from them at intervals, with years going by between chapters — but no matter how many years pass, the ghosts of their parents and the pain of their desertion always looms: "A son of a foolish man who loses all his money to fraudsters is what? A son of a poor man whose wife leaves him is what? A son of a man who runs away, leaving his children with his mother, is what?"
While Andrew and Peter provide vivid, wildly entertaining chapters that deal mostly with growing up, masculinity, and going to a terrible boarding school where abuse is normal, the chapters narrated by the twins are the crowning jewels in this novel. They explore how grief shapes us and how just surviving is sometimes the only coping mechanism we have left. Abraham creates believable characters whose stories could easily have come from real life, stories full of mistakes, rejection, and poverty that mirror some of the things we've all lived through. That makes them simultaneously unique and universal, and it makes it easy to understand the way they see the world, even if their lens is ugly:
All women are owned by someone, some are owned by many; a beautiful girl's 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?
Black Sunday is a literary wound that bleeds pain for a while, but you should stay the course, because that's followed by lots of love, beauty, and hope.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at@Gabino_Iglesias.