I think it’s appropriate that it took me a while to write about this book, but, eventually….well, you get it.
The title of this book shows up on the very last pages, and it works very well. I like it when book titles show up in the book themselves, especially when the titles are not self-evident (say The Catcher in the Rye compared to The Great Gastby). Sefi Atta’s novel chronicles a period of 24 years in the life of Enitan Taiwo, a young woman growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. The shifting political fortunes of Nigeria are important to the events of the novel, and you might see this book as a story about the gradual political awakening of a middle class woman living in the postcolonial world. But it is mostly about Enitan, her family and her friends, and so about people. We see Enitan’s best friend suffer a brutalizing assault, Enitan go to London to practice law and then come back to Nigeria, her dating life, her marriage and eventual motherhood. I like that this is a story about a person first and foremost and a story about a country (Nigeria) secondly.
A few weeks back I wrote about the dangers of the protest novel in A Thousand Splendid Suns, and how it slides into sentimentality. It cheats us as readers because it treats people as categories rather than characters. Everything Good Will Come is a novel about a person living under a shifting, but often oppressive and dangerous situation. Certainly, being middle class and educated, Enitan is often protected from the dangers of living in Nigeria’s unstable political climate. But by the end of the novel, she begins to see how no one is really safe, and decides to take action. This novel avoids the dangers of the protest novel while still educating its readers about what it might be like to live in a place like Nigeria. It is especially effective in doing this because I felt like, though Enitan lives in a country I’ve never been to and about which I confess, I know very little, many of her emotions, reactions and experiences felt quite familiar. She is, in the end, a person, like me. A person who struggles with having a relationship with her parents. A person who struggles with the challenges and joys of being married. Her marriage is put under strain by her decision to become politically active, but there’s a universal truth there to the difficulty of living with and loving someone when two people decide to go in different directions.
Enitan struggles a great deal with what it means to be a woman in Nigerian society, and so in many ways, it has a lot in common with A Thousand Splendid Suns. But if you’re interested in the way women live around the world, I think Atta does an infinitely better job of conveying those complexities than Hosseini does. Is Enitan oppressed sometimes as a woman? Yes. But how does that happen, and how do other women around her negotiate that oppression very differently. Whose to blame, really? This novel is unafraid of dealing with the complexity of the possible answers to these questions.
Enitan’s life has its difficulties, many that are unfamiliar to those of us in the global North. But in the end, good things do come. And throughout, there is a humor and a treatment of life as if is just that…life. People go on, with all their intricacies and contradictions. Today’s Nigeria finally has an elected, civilian government, but their troubles are far from over. Ethnic and religious divisions threaten to tear the country apart. If you want to gain some understanding of what that’s all about, this is a great book to read. If you want to read about a woman who, in many ways, might be a lot like you and is figuring out how to become herself, this is a great book to read. If you want sentimentality and simplistic caricatures, try something else.