In Tomi Obaro’s loving and lively debut novel we meet three women, lifelong friends — “essentially sisters, though Funmi would chafe at the sickly sweetness of such a term.” The dauntless Funmi, diffident Zainab and humble Enitan meet at college in Zaria, Nigeria, in the 1980s, forming (we are boldly told rather than shown) a solid unit, in which Enitan must play second fiddle to the beauties who are her two best friends. Now, 30 years later, their friendship rumpled but still fundamentally intact, the three — all mothers, all in variegatedly troublesome marriages — converge for the wedding of Funmi’s daughter in Lagos. This is the Destiny of the title, an aloof and reluctant bride (“Happiness is for Americans, that’s what Daddy always says”) who lends the plot the modest drama of will-she-or-won’t-she as her big day approaches, all while Funmi steams ahead with ostentatious celebrations.
Destiny, though, is an auxiliary character in relation to Funmi and friends, who remain — and will remain, the author assures us in the opening pages — “steadfastly in each other’s lives.” In life, such steadfastness is welcome; in fiction, which tends to derive its life from rupture and breakage, less so. While I was carried smoothly through the travails of these women, a line from elsewhere crept up on me. It was the quip attributed to Francis Bacon, remade famous by Kanye, about champagne for real friends, real pain for sham friends, although in this case, “fictional” replaces “sham.” In other words, I caught myself thinking a sadistic thought. Then again, isn’t the best and truest way for an author to love her characters to drive them into the kind of pain — real pain — that strains and changes their bonds, and with that, their selves?
In the novel’s middle section, set in the mid-1980s of their youth, we learn that the three have not, of course, been without their individual difficulties. Events are relayed in plain, genial prose, unfussed by the occasional cliché. Mystifyingly, some dramatic moments are ushered offstage or skated over, like the death of Damolo, an activist who is the boyfriend first of Zainab, then of Funmi. Zainab’s reaction is oddly rote: “Though they had drifted apart since their romantic relationship ended, she still thought of him fondly and had been gutted to hear of his death.”
This can lend much of the novel a feeling of account, rather than selectively crafted story. Nonetheless, Obaro’s unadorned style can come into its own, as it does most arrestingly with a bravura abortion scene. Here, the procedural quality of the writing takes on a political power; it seems entirely appropriate that we learn each step — the dilation, the curettage — all conducted illegally, under cover of darkness, in the Nigeria of 1984.
The novel’s greatest pleasure, though, is the indelible, show-stealing Funmi. Against her, both Zainab and meek Enitan (who imprudently marries “the first man who ever really looks at her”) can only fail to come into focus. On one occasion, already redoubtable at 14, Funmi picks up her scolding stepmother midfight “and dropped her into the unfinished borehole hired men had built on the property.” That’s one way to end an argument. Later, she marries the rather shady and extremely wealthy Yinka, and prefers not to think too hard about how exactly her husband makes his living. This question, as well as that of whether he’s cheating on her, remains unanswered. After all, she reflects: “The ways to die were endless. That’s why you had to live, and live ferociously, and often selfishly and exploitatively. … Thinking about life’s unfairness was a fool’s errand.”
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