With a long list that spans over four decades of critically lauded, award-winning novels, plays, and children’s titles, Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta is undoubtedly one of the pioneering women’s voices in African literature. She writes with simple strength, without embellishments; her uncomplicated, accessible prose is quiet, direct, and resonating.
Aku-nna and her younger brother Nna-nndo are surprised to come home from school to find their father waiting in the family’s small Lagos apartment, announcing that he must go the hospital to deal with an old World War II injury. He promises to come home in time for their evening meal, but instead dies weeks later, having never returned. The children’s mother, Ma Blackie, has been away seeking fertility treatment with a village medicine-man, but rushes back to care for her grieving children.
Without a means to support themselves, Ma Blackie and her children must follow the expected tradition of 1950s Nigeria, and join the sprawling household of her late husband’s older brother in the family’s village far from the capital. She becomes his fourth wife, her children his children. But because Aku-nna and Nna-nndo had been educated in the big city, they are allowed to continue their schooling; Aku-nna is exceptionally unusual to be granted such permission.
Attractive, fresh to the community, although not yet a woman, Aku-nna is carefully watched by the village young men and their families as a highly desired future bride; her uncle is already counting her inflated potential bride price. Aku-nna’s heart, however, is almost immediately won by her local schoolteacher, handsome Chike, the son of a wealthy family whose roots trace them to slaves.
Family ties, social structures, class limitations, gender expectations, tribal traditions are all pushed, challenged, and eventually broken … and tragedy mixed with fleeting moments of joy take the story to an inevitable end: “So it was that Chike and Aku-nna substantiated the traditional superstition they had unknowingly set out to eradicate … reinforc[ing] the old taboos of the land.” Emecheta’s clear, firm prose, however, does not depress but illuminates, inserting important momentum toward equity, especially for girls, refusing to merely accept age-old traditions that violate and punish without just cause.