I found myself feeling very much at home as I read Sefi Atta's descriptions of adult sibling dynamics the familiar ways that sisters and brothers, no matter how old they are and how far away they live from one another, fall back into their childhood taunts and jokes and tensions when they go back home. And yet I also felt like I was in unfamiliar territory. The landscape was completely foreign to me the heat of Lagos, the fenced homes, and the drivers, not to mention the actual taunts and jokes, which are decidedly Nigerian. A Bit of Difference is both universal and specific at the same time. It explores the subjects of family life (i.e. the adult sibling relationships above), feminism, charity work, racism, and religion all of which cross country and cultural lines but this is a Nigerian story, and each of these subjects is explored from a nuanced, multi-faceted Nigerian point of view. In addition, it offers a look at these particular subjects from both American and British viewpoints too. Layers and layers of different perspectives on identity, and one dynamic woman at their center. Through a whole assorted set of characters, we get a wide perspective of Nigeria in the early 21st century.
Deola Bello is a thirty-nine year old expatriate Nigerian living in London. She works as an accountant for an international charity organization. She appreciates her life. She enjoys her singleness and freedom; her work and her friends. She is smart and thoughtful, and she is sharp and sharp-tongued. A Bit of Difference opens in early 2000, when Deola is about to travel home to Lagos on business, at a time that coincides with the five-year anniversary of her father's death and a memorial service to commemorate it.
When Deola returns to Lagos, something is unlocked within her. Maybe it is her memories, or maybe her roots, or her family, or perhaps her visit coincides with an internal transition. Both her personal and professional worlds begin to break open. The author, Sefi Atta, has described Lagos as "the place I return to most. It is the beginning of memory for me and the seat of my imagination. It is also a storyteller's city. We have extremes and contradictions here, and most of all we have conflict." Perhaps Lagos is the same kind of place for Deola a place that wakes her memory as well as her musings about her future and thus a shift begins to occur.
A Bit of Difference is diasporic, as it is a Nigerian story set on three continents Africa, Europe and North America (specifically the Southeast of the United States where Deola's co-worker works). Atta, herself, has lived in all three places too. She was born in Lagos, has lived in Britain and now resides with her husband and daughter in Mississippi. Atta's canvas is social realism. She explores social issues as they intersect with her characters, and as such, her multi-continent home reflects this perspective.
In an interview, Atta says about the character of Deola:
"She is apprehensive because she sees how difficult marriage and family life can be. She has a brother and sister who have problems in their marriages. Her brother is bored with his wife. Her sister is dealing with a philandering husband. Her cousin is living with a married man. These situations are not out of the ordinary, but Deola has been away from home so long that they spook her. She doesn't know if she could cope with domestic conflicts as they occur in Nigeria. Her age also contributes to her apprehension. The older women get, the more they are pressured to get married, but the less likely they are to put up with marital arrangements that don't suit them."
This is the beginning of Deola's internal shift. And then, when something life-changing happens to her, Deola is forced to truly examine that apprehension, as well as her ever-changing sense of home. This examination makes up the bulk of A Bit of Difference. This is not a story heavy on plot, but is instead, a fascinating and deep study of the heart and head of one woman at one pivotal moment in her life. The details of Deola's situation and life are vastly different from my own. But because Atta crafts them so vividly and writes social realism so well, and because she beautifully plumbs emotional and psychological as well as physical and situational details so well, I felt connected to Deola.
In the end, A Bit of Difference is, for me, just as its title articulates a study of the subtle but vital differences between people, cultures, circumstances and even moments in time. One small shift changes everything. And while the details may be dissimilar, the consequences of these kinds of change are universally the same.
This review is from the January 23, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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