Blessing is twelve when her comfortable life in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is destroyed by the separation of her parents. She moves with her mother and older brother Ezikiel to a rural compound just outside Warri, in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Aside from getting used to the lack of running water, electricity and hygiene, Blessing has to learn to live in a violent community where the population is increasingly politicised by the actions of the oil companies. Her mother works night and day in an attempt to pay school fees, leaving Blessing in the care of her grandmother, a traditional midwife and her grandfather, a recent convert to Islam. Once top of the class, Ezikiel starts to fall behind in his studies after a gun attack and becomes seduced by the Sibeye Boys, a group of local boys arming themselves with guns and trying to be 'big men'. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is a coming of age story set against a violent backdrop.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, mainly due the charismatic narrative voice of Blessing herself. I think it's hard for adult writers to write in a child's voice successfully in a book intended for adult readers, but Watson manages it perfectly. Blessing starts the book relatively naive, shocked at the separation of her parents and worried most about how she will go to the toilet in a school without running water. As the novel goes on, she increasingly becomes more aware of the situation around her and comes to the realisation that the adults in her family are humans, as flawed as she is. Her coming of age was believable and very well written. Throughout the whole story, Blessing's voice is upbeat enough to off-set some of the tragedies and violence (gun crime, death, female genital mutilation). She's incredibly easy to identify with and it's her voice that set this novel 'alight' for me.
Tone is another challenge in a book with so many issues. Watson is helped in this by her choice of a teenage narrator; Blessing simply relays what is going on without judgement. Female genital mutilation is tackled in quite a bit of detail (Blessing is training to be a birth attendant with her grandmother) and the different perspectives and arguments are simply presented. Through Ezikiel we also get to see the different perspectives around gun crime and Western oil companies. Despite some of the heavy subject matter, the book doesn't get bogged down; Blessing keeps the pace swift and the tone just light enough.
The only criticism I have of this book is that at times, it was too sentimental. There's a lot of romanticism of Nigeria and of traditional African life; a grandmother telling folk stories with children gathered around, traditional cooking, African dance etc. Although this was necessary to balance the more heavy parts of the book, it felt a bit sentimental and stereotypical. But it's a minor criticism really; Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is compelling, expertly written and full of memorable characters. I couldn't put it down and finished it in just under two days.
Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5
1. Purple Hibiscus by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - another Nigerian coming of age story by one of my favourite authors. Kambili lives under the shadow of an abusive father and family dynamics are explored in a lot of detail. Also check out Adichie's other books, Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck.
2. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddy Ratner - Another coming of age story, this one against the backdrop of the Cambodian genocide. Ratner does the child narrator with as much skill as Watson.