“TINY SUNBIRDS FAR AWAY” CENTRES ON THE YOUNG NARRATOR, Blessing, in Nigeria, against a backdrop of political violence caused by the actions of oil companies in the Niger Delta. Blessing lives with her parents and brother, Ezikiel, in Lagos in a cocoon of luxury and comfort. However, soon her father’s abandonment of the family for another woman forces her mother to go to her parents’ home in the Delta, with Blessing and Ezikiel, where conditions are raw and squalid. In the neighbourhood gangs of violent boys prey on anyone they don’t like. The local police are portrayed as a corrupt mafia demanding bribes at every juncture. Inter-ethnic conflict is endemic.
We are never quite sure whether Blessing’s grandfather, the head of household, is the qualified petroleum engineer he claims to be, unjustly excluded by overpaid ex-pats, or a fantasist. It is the grandmother, a much-respected midwife, who keeps the family together. She gradually initiates Blessing into the mysteries of her profession.
Blessing’s brother, Ezikiel, is the other major character in the story. He is angry about his mother’s taking up with Westerners and joins the gang. In the course of trying to blow up a pipeline, he suffers horrifying burns, which lead to his death. The Oedipal and political struggle with his mother shatters her and she decides to wed a Western admirer, Dan. The wedding becomes the tragic centre of the plot when a gang of youths abduct Dan in mid-wedding.
Read more …
It is at this point that I began to feel that the plot comes unstuck as the strands of a powerful tragedy unwind into sentimentality and political propaganda. There’s an inexplicable naked demonstration by the neighbourhood women, which shames the gang into releasing Dan, who reappears as a Deus ex Machina and whisks Blessing’s mother off to a new life in England. Blessing, however, declines the change and chooses to stay with her grandmother in the Delta.
Another fascinating character is the second wife of the grandfather, Celestine. With her obsessions about lycra and her almost peripheral status in the household, Celestine provides some humour and also engages the reader’s sympathy.
One of the most unforgettable aspects of the novel is the graphic description of the deliveries of genitally mutilated women. Towards the end of the book Watson clearly invites the reader to join the political causes of female mutilation and destruction of the Delta by the petroleum companies. Although these are noble gestures one cannot help feeling that this somehow takes away the power of the story. Again, the return of Blessing’s mother with Dan about ten years later seems a rather feeble ending.
As a white woman writing about Africa Christie Watson’s novel could be compared to that of Lessing’s The Grass is Singing. Watson’s evocation of life in the Delta is strong and memorable. However, the politicization of the issues she addresses diminishes the story. Besides, Lessing is a master in engaging the reader’s sympathy without overt propaganda.
– Golden Langur