Friday, June 24, 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson is a coming of age novel for the reader as well as the book's twelve year narrator, Blessing. The novel is placed in a world few of us know much about and the characters labor under circumstances that compared to our lives might as well be science fiction. Blessing's journey from a comfortable home in Lagos with her parents and older brother to life with an extended family she doesn't know in a village in the Niger Delta without electricity or running water is an education.
Things change for Blessing when her Mother, Timi, catches her Father with another woman. Within days Father is gone taking his breadwinning with him and Timi's job at a local hotel is not enough to support the family. Blessing, her brother Ezekiel and Timi are on their way to Timi's hometown, the village of Wassi. Here things go from horrible to extra jumbo sized horrible. Wassi is life from another century. The small family compound includes Blessing and her family, her grandparents and their driver and his wives and children. Every convenience Blessing had taken for granted in Lagos is gone. She now uses an outhouse and totes water from a community well. What little food the family has is no longer just a trip to the market away.
There are plenty of other changes as well. Timi now works all day and then again late into the evening which is troubling. Ezekiel is spending less time in the school his Mother is struggling to pay for and more time with the local militants who call themselves The Freedom Fighters. Grandfather has recently converted to Islam and is contemplating taking on a second wife in order to get a son. The one new bright spot for Blessing is her Grandmother. The old woman becomes Blessing's mentor teaching her about their plain life and passing on to Blessing her skills as a midwife.
Watson's setting for Tiny Sunbirds provides a wealth of political and cultural extremes that add depth to this novel. She touches on female circumcision, poverty, kidnapping for profit, race, government and private corporation monopolies on natural resources, pollution, education, the erosion of village life and religion. In most instances the experiences of Blessing and her family with these things is extremely negative but Watson does not pass judgment on any of it. She keeps her tone neutral and always her characters to speak for themselves. The everyday-ness of these weighty problems for Blessing and the other characters is used by Watson to great disquieting effect.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away  features flawed characters living in a country and environment that seems hell bent on making life as difficult as possible. They have to fight to survive on a daily basis with only each other to rely on but this novel is not a litany of hardships. There is storytelling here. In Watson's skilled hands Blessing is an observant child moving too quickly into the adult world. Her plight and her responses to it are realistic and vivid and well worth a read.

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