Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 24, 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré

Well, the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist has just been announced, and for once, I want to read every single book.  I already have two of them and I’ll be buying Dominicana and Hamnet as soon as my finances recover from new bookshelves that are (maybe?) being installed next month in our family room (known affectionately as The Left Wing).  The other two will be library loans in due course.

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, on my TBR
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, on my TBR
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

But I am just a little bit amazed that The Girl with the Louding Voice didn’t at least make the longlist.  I finished reading it last night, and yes, it is a debut novel with some flaws, but it’s an excellent novel all the same.

Abi Daré is a Nigerian who has spent the last eighteen years in Britain, so she has both an intimate knowledge of Nigeria and an ‘outsider’s’ grasp of the ways in which it fails the test of a society which serves its people.  Most of what I’ve read and reviewed from Nigerian authors has been critical of its corrupt post-colonial regimes and their flaws, some of it really harrowing as in Song for Night by Chris Abani, and sometimes masking a serious issue with a light-hearted tone, as in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance (about a young man tempted to take up Nigeran scams as a way to make a living).

But Daré goes a step further with her Prologue.  From the outset she is determined that the reader should know the tragedy of this nation’s failings:

Nigeria is a country located in West Africa.  With a population of just under 180 million people, it is the 7th most populous country in the world, which means that 1 in 7 Africans is a Nigerian. As the 6th largest crude oil exporter in the world, and with a GDP of $568.5 billion, Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day.

The quotation comes from a purported Book of Nigerian Facts: from past to Present, 5th edition, 2014, which the central character uses to surreptitiously educate herself.  But as Daré says in the Acknowledgements: the facts about Nigeria gathered in this book are all available online.  And one of the facts, quoted at the beginning of Chapter 49, is germane to the theme of the novel:

Fact: Despite the creation in 2003 of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, to tackle human trafficking and related crimes, a 2006 UNICEF report showed that approximately 15 million children under the age of 14, mostly girls, were working across Nigeria.  (p.274)

And this is what happens to Adunni.  Her mother sacrificed a great deal to have Adunni educated as a way out of poverty, but Papa breaks the promise he made to Mama on her death-bed and marries off Adunni, aged fourteen, to be a third wife so that he can live off her bride-price.  The loss of her ambition to be a teacher is compounded by a cruel and jealous first wife, by Morufu’s abusive behaviour, and by her terror of becoming pregnant to him.  Her only consolation is the kindness of Morufu’s second wife, but when tragedy befalls Khadija, Adunni flees to a friend of her mother’s, because village justice is jungle justice. Proximity is enough for blame, and the punishment is certain death and no questions asked.

Pursued to Iya’s place, Adunni makes her escape with Mr Kola, Iya’s brother, but she was right to have misgivings.  (This child has learned to be ‘people-smart’ in a very short space of time). Kola places her as a powerless domestic servant in Lagos, and has her wages paid into his own account.  From the lawlessness of village life to the spectre of modern slavery under a viciously brutal Madam in a Lagos mansion, Daré develops the Cinderella theme with great skill. It’s not a Prince Charming who rescues Adunni, it’s her own indefatigable spirit, her intelligence, and the intervention of another staff member who fears the likely fate of this unfortunate child and facilitates an opportunity to transcend it.

What makes this grim tale with an unlikely ending into uplifting reading is the voice of Adunni.  She is proud of her achievements in primary school, and — until her father’s betrayal — believes that her knowledge of English enhances her prospects.

My head been stoning my mind with many questions since this morning, questions that are not having answers.  What is it meaning, to be the wife of a man with two wifes and four childrens? What is making Morufu to want another wife on top the already two?  And Papa, why, why is he wanting to sell me to a old man with no thinking of how I am feeling?  Why didn’t he keep the promise he make to Mama before she dead? (p.7)

As with my recent reading of Nancy by Bruno Lloret (transl. Ellen Jones), The Girl with the Louding Voice is either going to captivate you with its audacious representation of a self-taught learner of English, or you may decide it’s not for you.  But I found that not only is Adunni’s meaning always clear, the dialogue shows how clever she is.  She’s just a village girl with a scanty education, but as you can see from that excerpt,  she doesn’t take things at face value.  She becomes street smart without being cunning, and she has the emotional intelligence to see through the people taking advantage of her.  But the use of this fractured English is authentic too: it shows the massive disadvantage that Adunni has to overcome.  Like millions of other girls and women in Nigeria, she has no hope of bettering herself unless she can speak the language of the educated elite.

I look forward to reading more of this author.

Author: Abi Daré
Title: The Girl with the Louding Voice
Publisher: Sceptre (Hachette) 2020
ISBN: 9781529359244, pbk, 314 pages
Source: Purchased from Benn’s Bookshop, $ 32.99


Responses

  1. This sounds really powerful. I’m glad it’s ultimately uplifting, at the moment I can’t take relentlessly bleak! Adunni’s voice comes across as very compelling in the quote you used.

    Like

    • It has its moments, but she is such a confident voice that you know she will triumph one way or another:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Girl with the Louding Voice is in the pile of books I brought home from the library before the world went to sh*t, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Now I’m looking forward to it even more.

    Like

    • Well, that’s a lucky thing!
      Silly me, I took all mine back because they said they were closing the return chutes. I could have kept them till I’d read them and nobody would have minded.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my! This sounds like a very important book, Lisa and I am reminded of the power of fiction to tell us truths we may otherwise not be open to hearing.

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  4. I bought Hamnet a few days before the list was announced. Looking forward to it, the reviews so far are very positive.

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  5. My library closed the day after I got my last stack of audiobooks. I’m not at the end yet, but I worry only the dross remains. I know there are technological options available to me, but getting the reading from my phone to the speakers in the truck remains a problem.

    I would hesitate to read a book effectively in dialect but I guess I should take your word that it is readable. We middle class whites live in such a comfortable world (even now!) that the perils faced by the other 90% are sometimes difficult for the mind to encompass.

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    • You make a good point, Bill. When you read rather than listen, you can backtrack if something isn’t clear and that helps you to ‘learn’ the dialect. I don’t think I would have felt as comfortable listening to this as I was reading it.
      I am even more technologically challenged than you are. I listen to audiobooks on CD, in fact, I chose the make and model of my latest car solely because it was the only one that had a CD player. All the others only had the option to mess around with an iPod or a phone.

      Like

  6. I’m glad someone else uses CDs Lisa! I bought my car for the same reason and I listen to music on CDs as well! I think we’re a similar age group – computers didn’t come into the workplace until I was in my 30s & I’ve never really caught up!

    Like

    • #Snap# CD-lovers unite!
      Actually, I’m comfortable with computers. It’s the whole iThing I can’t stand. I have two iPods, and I never use either of them if I can help it, and I have an iPad which I bought because there was a mapping app I wanted the Year 4s to use to show that they knew where the voyages of exploration went. Although I never touch it now, I occasionally used that to take photos and videos of my house and garden to show my father when he was too frail to visit. (That was the big disappointment about bringing him to Melbourne. I had hoped that regular visits would be possible, but it was not to be).
      I remember saying to the car salesman that there were thousands of us in our age group and the CD player should still be an option. He offered to put all my CDs onto my phone in response. (He’s still be doing it now if I’d said yes).
      I still miss the 6CD stacker which was great for audiobooks on long trips, and #BadCaseOfBuyerRemorse I really miss my lovely old blue Mazda 6.

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  7. There was an interesting article on Melville House’s blog recently, about the prevalence of big publishing houses on the shortlist. It’s always been a factor, but the increased costs associated with putting forward a book for these literary prizes do seem to be extraordinarily high. Normally this is a prize that I follow more closely, but this year, without the library, I’m simply following other readers’ posts and reviews (and, to be fair, I’ve been sidetracked by some of my own projects, too, but I’d probably have snuck a few, at least, with regular library visits). This is one I’m sure I’d enjoy based on the quotation you’ve included. And I’m drawn to voice-driven fiction to start with!

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    • Yes, that’s been an issue here too. The big prizes were all being won by the big publishers who could afford the entry fees — and some competitions also require the shortlisted authors to attend the awards ceremony, which given the size of Australia can be *very* expensive for an author to do if they don’t live in the same city.
      And the problem was/is that the most interesting, award-worthy books in this country are published by the small publishers. There is no doubt about this: manuscripts have to get past the marketing department in the conglomerates, and that means the books have to be commercially viable. The small publishers OTOH take the risks. (Sadly, the big publishers often then poach their authors once they’ve been successful).
      When one of the university presses balked at the whole thing and signalled that they were not going to enter anything any more (and then won our most prestigious prize) our two major prizes changed their entry requirements and it’s been a bit better.
      The problem is that for a prize to get publicity, it needs to be ‘an event’. Without that publicity, the winner would only get the prize money and not the spike in sales that comes with the publicity for the award. But that publicity costs money, and that’s what the entry fees are for.
      The solution, IMO, is to have two-tier entry fees, small publishers paying a lot less. (We did this when I ran a professional association: schools paid more to be members than individuals did.)
      Anyway, I hope you enjoy The Girl with the Louding Voice!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. All so reasonable and clearly stated. And I’m in complete agreement that there does need to be a certain amount of panache to draw in a readership that will foot the bill and make the splash. Your suggestion of a two-tiered system does make sense, but I can imagine that the larger publishers would balk at that. Despite their relative power, I think they still believe that they have earned their seat at the table and the others should work harder/better if they want to join. I also suspect that jury members are more keen on the higher production value product that emerges from the larger houses and perhaps don’t always tend to the indie options. And I wish more writers would find a two-tiered response, too, as they obviously must consider their bottom line when they receive a juicy publication offer but they could also offer future projects to the indie presses that helped capture some notoriety for them in the first place.

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    • It would be a better world of books if we were running it, eh?!

      Like


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