A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo
Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s second novel, A Spell of Good Things, published a few weeks before Nigeria’s infamous 2023 presidential elections—an election riddled with political thuggery, voter suppression, and ethnic bigotry—explores the ruins of Nigeria’s political climate. Here, we follow Adébáyò’s protagonists: Eniolá, a working class sixteen-year-old boy whose dreams are thwarted when his father is let go from his job as a history teacher, and Wúràolá, a wealthy young doctor living on the other end of Nigeria’s class hierarchy.
In the first pages, Adébáyò steeps her readers in the mundanities of Eniolá’s and Wúràolá’s lives. When we first meet Eniolá, he is running an errand for his father, picking up the daily newspaper from a vendor. The vendor spits on Eniolá, and that action, a bandage ripped, pivots the reader into Eniolá’s interiority, a mash of hope and disappointment. He wants to stop getting bullied in school, we learn. He wants his father to rise to his responsibilities as a caretaker.
Wúràolá, we meet on call, attending to patients, musing about the decay of Nigeria’s healthcare system. In the first pages of her introduction, we are immersed in her listlessness, one evoked in the sentence, “Recently she had begun to suspect that she would always be restless. Maybe she was one of those people for whom satisfaction lay only in the future, forever slightly out of reach.” When Kúnlé, Wúràolá’s boyfriend, is introduced, we watch Wúràolá rebel and settle into strangling gender roles, an impulse that persists throughout the book.
The novel’s omniscient narrator does not simply focus on Eniolá and Wúràolá. We delve into the histories of the women and girls in both families, Eniolá’s mother and sister, Ìyá Eniolá and Bùsólá, and Wúràolá’s mother and sister, Yèyé and Mótárá. Ìyá Eniolá and Yèyé share the peculiar struggle of watching one’s life collapse after a spell of good things, and their ominous stories foreshadow those of their children.
Divided into four parts, each part titled after renowned Nigerian novels, A Spell of Good Things escalates slowly, almost imperceptibly, with its main characters Eniolá and Wúràolá inching closer to their tragic meeting. Though the prose is easy to sink into, the narrative arc is sometimes burdened by long expositions and repetitive flashbacks, causing the novel to sag. There are, for example, more than enough instances of narration exploring Wúràolá’s marriageability, either from Yèyé or from Wúràolá herself. This emphasis is also woven into the characterization of Wúràolá’s aunties. An instance or two would have sufficed, allowing the reader to explore other evolving parts of Wúràolá. The same can be argued for Eniolá. He seems, and for too long, entrapped in the singular problem of escaping getting flogged at school. His desires often seem puerile, his rage muted, fashioned toward achieving the good boy turned bad boy that infuses the story’s resolution with a tragic air.
In part four, the novel’s voice jumps, the prose shimmers, evocative of Adébáyò’s tightly propulsive and narratively successful first book, Stay with Me. Eniolá careens into a vivid character, moving with such piercing definiteness. When he confesses that he once stole a phone and held onto it until he could sell it for a fitting price, we wonder why this side of Eniolá was withheld for so long, as do we wonder about Wúràolá’s eventual confession of Kúnlé’s abuse. Why do we only learn about Kúnlé’s abuse near the novel’s end? What is lost when the characters only begin to surprise so far into the novel?
The novel rewards its patient reader. Its ending scenes are a masterful layering of intersecting traumas, opposite lives converging. The narrative is as merciless as the consequences of the themes it explores. Symbols glaze with meaning here. The novel’s title carries new weight. Eniolá and Wúràolá, faced with tough decisions, wriggle, in very human ways, through delusions that serve as braces from the truths of their harsh realities.
Adébáyò’s thematic preoccupations in this novel center an oft-caricatured group within Nigeria’s political system. It is common to hear Nigerians complain bitterly about political thugs every election year. Why would someone throw away their future for a bag of rice? is usually how the tirade begins. Adébáyò unspools the why, the how, and forces us to face uncomfortable truths.
ESTHER OKONKWO is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a second-year PhD student in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Her fiction has appeared in Isele Magazine, Guernica, and Catapult. She’s a recipient of the 2021 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. Home for her is Lagos, Nigeria.
AYÒBÁMI ADÉBÁYÒ is the author of Stay With Me and A Spell of Good Things. Ayòbámi has written for the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Finanacial Times, BBC, Guardian (UK), ELLE and others. She also wrote the play, Provenance, which was staged as a multi-screen immersive installation produced by the University of East Anglia and Mutiny in 2021. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, Nigeria. Ayòbámi also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (UK) where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. In 2017, she won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Arts and Culture. She has received fellowships and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, Sinthian Cultural Centre, Hedgebrook, Ox-bow School of Arts, and Ebedi Hills. Ayòbámi was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She is married to the writer Emmanuel Iduma.