2016 has been a great year for Nigerian literature and by extension African literature, and I am both personally excited for all that happened and looking forward to an even bigger 2017. As is customary with me at the end of each year, I will be sharing the best books I read during the course of 2016. Let me also say that not all the books were published in 2016; some of them were published earlier but I got to read them this year. I also have a bias for African novels and all the books listed here are books written by Africans (I can’t really help myself in this regard lol).
Nine books made the cut this year (I really wanted to make it ten but there was no other worthy book); so permit me to get right into the list moving from number 9 up to number 1.
Let’s do this, shall we?
9. AFTER THEY LEFT by EDIFY YAKUSAK
With this debut novel, Edify established herself as a bold new voice, painting her story with the brush of her words and taking her readers on a journey through the conflicts in the Plateau State of Jos, and tugging at our heartstrings along the way. She chronicles the all too familiar story of ethnic tensions common in Nigeria, which often boils over into full scale conflicts. Edify throws her readers right into the plot, unmasking her characters for them to see, hear and touch.
This is a book worth reading; a story that reminds us of what is going on in our country and how we could all be so easily consumed by our privilege that we are blind to the sufferings of others. Edify Yakusak is not afraid to tell a story no matter how horrific it is; she takes us into this dark path with the casual ease of wise older one, and yet not watering down the story. She makes sure you see the horror and the devastation, but most importantly, she makes sure that you see the people whose lives were changed forever.
What I Liked About The Book: She describes the horror of the situation so vividly and shows us how fickle humanity can be.
What I Did Not Like About The Book: She did not attempt to provide a background to the crises, plus her plausibility fell flat in a few areas.
Favorite Quote: “He was a severely handsome man who carried a permanently wounded expression and darkness in his eyes – a sweet and sour darkness, which held possibilities of love and hatred and experiences of pleasure and pain.”
8. LOVE IS POWER OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT by IGONI BARRET
In this collection of short stories, Igoni Barret tells stories so powerfully that the reader is transported right to the plot so much so that it feels like the reader is in the story. The book opens with The Worst Thing That Happened, which tells a story of the empty nest syndrome, of loneliness associated with ageing and a story of abandonment. The story was so graphic that it tugged at my heart strings, and at some point, I picked up the phone to call my mom and nearly apologized for not visiting her as much as I would love to. Dream Chaser takes you back to when we just discovered internet romance, while in The Shape Of A Full Circle, we are introduced to a child who is forced into adulthood by the alcoholism of his mother.
Love Is Power Or Something Like That, the titular story, stood out for me with a very familiar story woven around a character all of us will most certainly recognize; the policeman who becomes another person once he dons his uniform. There is a hilarious story about halitosis, and there was Godspeed and Perpetua, which was almost a novella and left a very strong impression on me.
What I Liked About The Book: Igoni takes on strong themes that resonate in the society today, but he is very subtle about it, so much so that your attention is not drawn away from the story even though the highlighted issue is strong enough to be noticed. In this book, he went from statutory rape to dysfunctional marriages, to patriarchy, police brutality and even race. Each one was subtle but woven expertly into the story with an ease that doesn’t distract from the story itself.
What I Didn’t Like About The Book: There was almost some hesitation in his story telling, like he was somewhat insecure about the stories he was telling.
Favorite Quote: “But love does not mean marriage, a baby, forever. Love means you make me happy until you don’t.”
7. A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS by OTHUKE OMINIABOHS
A Conspiracy of Ravens tells a story of a grand scheme fueled by greed, revenge, lust and violence. It unveils a Nigeria controlled by a few people, each one with his own agenda, none of which is in the interest of the country or its citizens. Othuke depicts a Nigeria in which its citizens are busy going about their daily lives and not realizing that very little of their daily existence is directly controlled by them. He deserves praise for weaving what is essentially a very complicated and interlocked story; it was almost as if he had several stories running concurrently in the book, and somehow he was able to create some harmony to these stories.
What I Liked About The Book: Good character development; so many strong characters all with important roles in the plot, which is not easy to pull off. Othuke’s imagery was very good and even though it seemed like he had several stories running concurrently, somehow they all came together beautifully.
What I Didn’t Like About The Book: The storyline was somewhat bumpy, some of the dialogues were bland, and Othuke took quite some liberty with coincidence.
Favorite Quote: “He agreed that the Biafran snake had only been wounded and might rear its ugly head again especially since Ojukwu was only in exile.”
6. HAPPINESS LIKE WATER by CHINELO OKPARANTA
Chinelo emerged on the literary scene like a fresh voice, a voice endowed with wisdom far beyond her years. In this collection of stories, she fearlessly challenged stereotypes, questioned prejudice, poked holes at religious dogma and lifted the veil on the human experience. Majority of the stories are set in Port Harcourt (which we all know is one of my favorite places on earth) with clean, relatable and easily recognizable characters.
Shelter was my favorite story in this collection, as it made me tear up a bit; and then there was Grace, which explored similar themes with her debut novel.
What I Liked About The Book: Despite being a collection of many diverse short stories, the stories all had common themes and somewhat flowed into one another. There was also humor in it – loads of humour.
What I Didn’t Like About The Book: She turned me into a teary mess at many points in the book, and for that, I am mad at her (LOL).
Favorite Quote: “Happiness is like water, she says. We are always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers . . . and my fingers are thin . . . with lots of gaps in between.”
5. EASY MOTION TOURIST by LEYE ADENLE
Crime fiction isn’t something that Nigerians write a lot, so Leye Adenle’s book was a breath of fresh air. And boy, did he deliver. The city of Lagos came alive in this book; the sights, smells and sounds with Leye lifting the veil on the dark underbelly of what appears to be a very seductive city.
Leye pens a captivating thriller which features the most complex characters and layered narrative, but rather than confusing the readers, we are left wanting for more. He spins a story of black market organ trade, commercial sex work, crime, violence, and in all this, the lead character, Amaka stands out like a rose in a thorn garden.
What I Liked About The Book: This book is fast paced and elicits a visceral response, just as I expect a crime thriller to be. It delivers the right amount of suspense and surprise, and the story flowed very seamlessly without looking like he tried to write.
What I Didn’t Like The Book: Some parts of the story were not believable, plus so many odds worked in favor of the lead character more than the average person.
Favorite Quote: “They had all been forced into that life when they ran out of choices. They were not loose women; they had dreamt different lives for themselves but survival forced them onto the streets.”
4. A BIT OF DIFFERENCE by SEFI ATTA
In this captivating novel, Sefi weaves an all too familiar tale of the expatriate Nigerian living abroad, who suddenly finds herself questioning everything after a short trip home. The main character returns home to find that things have actually gotten worse; infrastructure has failed, government has abdicated responsibility, and a perverse form of commercial religion had taken over the land.
A chance meeting with a handsome stranger completely turns her world around and redefines the story. Sefi actually penned a very political story in this book, one which explores the themes of race, gender, patriarchy, racism etc, but she manages to make these dominant themes very subtle while keeping the focus on the story.
What I Liked About The Book: It was very easy to read; the story flowed seamlessly like water and the characters are very real people, with everyday struggles that we can all relate to. It came across as just a story without any technicalities.
What I Did Not Like About The Book: It had the same all too familiar immigration theme, which is quite common with African novels.
Favorite Quote: “Nigerians made beggars out of child refugees from Niger and impregnated their mothers. Nigerians kicked out Ghanaians when Ghanaians became too efficient taking over jobs Nigerians couldn’t do, named a laundry bag after the mass exodus: the Ghana must go bag. Nigerians aren’t even sorry about the civil war; they are still blaming the British.”
3. BLACKASS by IGONI BARRET
In Blackass, Igoni does for Lagos what Chimamanda Adichie did for Nsukka in Purple Hibiscus; he lets us experience the city of Lagos and takes us right into the novel in typical Igoni style. Blackass introduces us to Furo Wariboko, who woke up one morning and discovered he was now a white man (not just fair, but he had become a Caucasian man overnight). However, he was a white man who retained his black buttocks. He was therefore forced to abandon his family while he went on a job hunt, all the while trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
Blackass is hilarious and God knows I love me some funny fiction, but underneath all the humor are very strong themes which makes this novel actually quite political. Igoni explored race and white privilege, hair, sexual identity, sibling rivalry and complexities of family structures among others with such dexterity that shows that he is quite fearless with his pen. The white Furo was accepted at nearly every office he went to, and everywhere he turned, people were falling all over themselves to offer him a job. This is something that is very common in our society today; send a white person to prospect for business for you in these parts and see how fast contract papers are signed.
What I Liked About The Book: Igoni handled the themes in this book with an appreciable dexterity and admirable fearlessness. Very vivid descriptions bring the story alive in the mind of the reader.
What I Didn’t Like About The Book: The timeline of Syreeta’s pregnancy was a bit too confusing and had me calculating the plausibility.
Favorite Quote: “And so it went, stares followed him everywhere. Pedestrians stopped and stared, or stared as they walked. Motorists slowed their cars and stared and on occasion honked their horns to draw his face so they could stare into it. School bound children hushed their mates and poked their fingers in his direction, wrapper clad women paused in their front yard duties and gazed after him, and stick chewing men leaned over balcony railings to peer down at him.”
2. AND AFTER MANY DAYS by JOWOR ILE
I live in Port Harcourt, so I am always excited to find books set in my city. And nobody has written about Port Harcourt as vividly as Jowor Ile did in this book. Jowor delved into the city, offering the reader a peek into what the town is like; how it breathes and lives, way better even than Igoni Barret did in Love Is Power Or Something Like That, and Ifeanyi Ajegbo did with Sarah House. Tales of crazy traffic, noisy churches and brides mounting commercial motorbikes to make it to their weddings on time mirror the chaos that often characterizes Port Harcourt.
The novel opens with the Utus, a very familiar Nigerian family which may very well be living down the road from your house. Heck, which could even be your own family and one which is torn apart never to remain the same after the oldest child Paul goes missing. All efforts to find Paul prove abortive, throwing what was a somewhat blissful family into something that is like a shadow of what they were before. This story was told against the backdrop of a restive Niger Delta, in which the oil companies together with government continue to fail the people.
What I Liked About The Book: Jowor took us on a nostalgic journey to our childhood with this story that demands to be felt. The crushing loss of a child was so expertly described and the dynamics of families was masterfully illustrated.
What I Didn’t Like About The Book: The story stumbled a bit, falling and picking up pace a few times; plus the militancy of the Niger Delta while still being relevant today has been explored severally.
Favorite Quote: “When their parents talked about their time in Lagos, their voices softened and they spoke as if it were another life altogether, more exciting than the one they had now.”
1. UNDER THE UDALA TREES by CHINELO OKPARANTA
Under the Udala Trees is a coming-of-age story like no other, one that shocks us, scares us, tugs at our heart strings and lifts the veil on a lot of the issues we pretend to forget. In this brilliant novel, Chinelo Okparanta manages to take on the horror of the Nigerian civil war, and like Adichie in Half Of A Yellow Sun, she focuses on people whose lives were changed by the war rather than on the war itself. It’s a story of a shy young girl coming into her own, a story of humans becoming unfeeling to death and destruction, and how grief can turn people into unrecognizable versions of themselves.
Chinelo is bold and not afraid to poke at the things we would pretend don’t exist and want to shy away from. She lifted the veil on homosexuality with her storytelling and opened a new perspective to religion while still describing sexual intimacy with such graphic detail that it will make you blush, expertly straddling the line between spirituality and sexuality. Never have I seen a book that challenged religious dogma like Under the Udala Trees, particularly the practice of sitting and concurring with everything as long as our religion demands them.
What I Liked About The Book: Ms. Okparanta chronicled the struggles of the LGBT in Nigeria with such emotional accuracy. She explored how people often think of homosexuality as a sexual aberration that could be “cured” with prayers through deliverance, and shone a light on how religious people make it almost impossible for gay people to want to love God.
What I Did Not Like About The Book: This is my best book of 2016 and I honestly cannot think of one thing I did not like about it.
Favorite Quote: “I had now begun to accompany mama to church on Sundays. Why was it that these questions never came up at church? Why was it that people never asked any questions at church? Instead everyone nodded and cried amen after everything Father Godfrey said and clapped, no one asking him to explain anything. I wished that Papa were here so that I could have asked him what he thought. I wondered what Father Godfrey would say if I confronted him with these questions. Would he even know the answers? How much did pastors pretend to know?”
So there, my favorite books of 2016 list; you can see that both Chinelo Okparanta and Igoni Barret had two spots each, which effectively makes them my rock stars of 2016 (lol).
I just started reading Carnivorous City by Toni Kan. What are you reading?
Written by Franklyne Ikediasor
Franklyne Ikediasor is partial to black coffee and a good African Novel. He lives in Port Harcourt Nigeria where he spends his leisure time running, cycling or getting together with friends to share bouts of wine fuelled laughter. He tweets @ThatPortharcourtBoy