“It is amazing, what you can get used to,” marvels 12-year-old Blessing, the plucky protagonist of Christie Watson’s heartfelt coming-of-age novel, set in Nigeria but resoundingly universal in its depiction of a family struggling to rise above hard and dangerous times.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is all about the ugly truths we must accept and get used to, but it also explores the importance of speaking out against injustice, even if the cost is high. The novel, Watson’s first, also offers a compelling and often wrenching portrait of resilience, a lesson Blessing learns after her mother catches her father in bed with another woman. He moves out and stops paying rent; her mother loses her job at the Royal Imperial Hotel, which employs only married women. And so she is forced to move Blessing and her older brother Ezikiel from their modern apartment in Lagos to their grandparents’ village in the Niger Delta, an unimaginable leap.
Watson, a Brit who trained and worked as a nurse, lives in London, but her depiction of rural African woes will unnerve even the most moderately pampered Westerner. We worry about traffic, job stress and the skyrocketing prices of everything from groceries to our cable bill. Blessing understands such worries, too; she has grown up with them in busy, crowded, contemporary Lagos, where the family lives on wealthy Allen Avenue. There, consumption and the flaunting of it is a way of life.
“If you had money to spend, Allen Avenue was where you spent it,” she explains. “And if you were even richer, like us, then you lived there. . . . Allen Avenue was brightly lit. People left their televisions and radios on loud all night, to show how much money they could afford to waste.”
Such troubles, though, quickly evaporate once her family arrives in the Delta, where there are more pressing worries than poverty (though poverty is pervasive): parasites in the river; bacteria in the food; poison chemicals in the air; no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. Most alarming of all is the distant and then not-so-distant gunfire. Armed boys on gunboats cruise up and down the polluted waterways, and rumors persist about violence waged by government forces paid off by Western oil companies.
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