Sunday, January 16, 2022

Wahala, by Nikki May, review: a wistful ode to flawed friendship and Nigeria

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We follow the lives of three best friends in their thirties who live in London and are all black women of mixed Nigerian and English ancestry, wondering what the future holds

We follow the lives of three best friends in their thirties who live in London. Ronke, Simi, and Boo are all black women of mixed Nigerian and English ancestry. They also share looming question marks about what the future holds.

In Nigeria, in large parts of West Africa and in the entire African diaspora, everyone knows what you mean when you complain about all that “Wahala”. Nigerian pidgin, which translated means “anger”, could even be paired with the classic refrain: “See me, see problem”. With both sentences emblazoned on the front of Nikki May’s debut, the novel could only mean drama and chaos.

Ronke is traditionally after “The One”, but the Nigerian men she goes out with remain dubious. Motherhood and being a wife are crosses that Boo finds difficult to endure. And the career-driven Simi could do without the bitchy boss and a husband who wants to expand his family of two.

Their friendship is shattered when Isobel, an old friend and glamorous figure from the wealthy Ikoyi of Lagos, lands in London. She is a shy charmer who is used to turning heads – but when she arrives, cracks appear in the relationship between the three friends.

May’s priority is not to make her characters likable, but to question the dynamics that arise in groups when people pull in different directions.

The desires, needs and ambitions of Ronke, Boo and Simi are recognizable and assignable, while their partners are only props. It definitely works when read as a nod to how all three women try to fill in the void left by missing or absent fathers – but at the same time the arcs of Boos and Simi’s white husbands Martin and Didier and Ronkes leave boyfriend Kayode , something unfinished.

May’s ability to combine personal problems with a nostalgia for Nigerian food, customs and culture is unparalleled. Behaved
in Lagos, before moving to London, she has knowledge and nostalgia that are out of the ordinary. Whether you’ve been to Lagos more than you can count, just once or never, you’ll be whisked away to the comfort of the decadent Ikoyi Club for Nigeria’s elite or one of the best “Mama Puts” (roadside restaurants) in the City, while inhaling Moin Moin, Jollof rice, and a range of grilled meats.

But as impressive as her writing is, it cannot hide it effort does not quite keep the promise of the prologue. The ending feels hasty compared to the rest of the book, and undoes the explanations and revelations we were chasing after. Elsewhere, while we are offered a glimpse of the strong class divisions that prevail in Nigeria, the commentary on colorism is minimal at best.

Even so, effort hard to upset – a vigorous, entertaining exploration of fundamentally flawed friendships and how uncomfortable emotions like jealousy and bitterness are not always easy to confront and, in fact, cause trouble.

Nikki May’s Wahala will be released on Doubleday for £ 14.99

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