Monday, September 3, 2007

Reading the Ceiling - A Review

In the slit between my bedroom curtains I see a triangle of sky more grey than blue. [...] I plan to be loose today. But who with?

Ayodele is a young Aku girl growing up in The Gambia. The book starts when, at 18, she has to make a monumental decision: who to lose her virginity to. But it's more than just who she loses it to that is important, it's that she is losing it, rebelling against the strict moral system of her mother's generation where a woman only lost her virginity on her wedding night, to her husband. This sense of rebellion against the rigid structures binding women in place in Gambian society is something that underlies the whole book, always subtly in place, always at the base of all the choices Ayodele makes (or fails to make).

Ayodele has a short-list of possible candidates, and at the beginning of the book we find her running through them in her mind, weighing them against each other. (And the largest mango in my pile? The biggest bonga on my stall?, she asks at one point during the descriptions). It is at this point that the book splits into three, the three possible paths Ayodele's life could take, depending on which choice she makes.

Given the plot of the book, it would have been very easy for it to become nothing more than a cheap gimmick, swamped in righteous sentimentality and a bias for certain choices over others on the author's part. Not so in this case - all the choices Ayodele makes are as valid as any other: there is no preaching, no overbearing moral tone. It is told in the first person, and the storytelling is watertight, and very convincing - the author never gets in the way of her characters, or interferes with them. There is a discipline in the storytelling, and it pays off: Ayodele is ready to step out of the page at any moment, and during her moments of sorrow - and this book, like real life, does not shy away from those - you feel great sympathy for her.

We often think of the choices we make as linked together in a long line, from start to finish, one choice leading to another, which leads to another, and so on until we expire. This view is overly simplistic, and not very realistic. Our choices are more like a web, each choice linked to a hundred other choices, which are linked to a hundred others, the linkages running backward and forward and letting you arrive at different parts of the web via different paths. Dayo, rather than taking the simplistic view here, takes the more complex one: things in one choice-line are echoed in a second one, certain things are repeated in all three lines, even though different choices were made by Ayodele. You find yourself wondering whether this complex interaction between the many choices we (and others) make, are not what we glorify and call Fate (with a capital F).

I feel like I do when I stand on the wet sand on the beach [...] and try to guess which of the waves will reach my toes before their weight pulls them back. [...] It's not the obvious ones, not necessarily the big ones that ride by themselves. More often than not, these waves never touch my toes.

Dayo Forster is a great stylist of prose, and you get the feeling much work went into crafting every word on these pages. The sentences are beautiful, and there are turns of phrase which demand that you re-read them, their lyricism almost poetic in its effect. Yet Ayodele never takes herself too seriously - all through the book there is a thin film of humor lain over everything that happens, and matters are dealt with with a great subtlety, and a very, very fine hand. Take, for example, this description of... well, just read it:

[He] can drive. I direct him all the way. Will you take me home? Why don't you stop here for a bit? Shall we move to the back seat? I have the good sense to take out the condom in my disco bag.

The book is set in The Gambia, and the descriptions and dialogue are very authentic. When Ayodele and her classmates travel up-country to celebrate their graduation with a picnic, you are there with them: the mud and the mosquitoes and the river with the canoes on it. There are many layers to this book, and many excursions into subjects which intrude into the life of every Gambian, despite your best efforts to guard against them: from the large (politics, religion, polygamy) to the small (how many mburu to buy for breakfast). But everything is always viewed from the perspective of Ayodele, and how it affects her life - there are no lengthy excursions into topics which have nothing to do with the plot, but which the author thought were pertinent in a Gambian novel anyway.

All this adds up to create a really good novel, one which transports you breathless from the almost-childish musings of a teenager lying on her bed making plans for the rest of her life, to the end, when Aodele has grown - in more ways than one - and is left, not bitter, not even regretful, but settled into her life, time and experience wrapping her up in a heavy old shawl and sitting her down in an armchair to await.... whatever comes next. Ayodele is a very sad character: one of the themse of the book is how she searches for love in her life continuously, yet never truly finds it (except in one instance when she has it cruelly wrested away from her). The work hovers on the edge of being existentialist - Ayodele is not very religous at the best of times, and outright atheistic at others, yet she always seems to be searching, for herself, for others, for meaning, most of the time without even knowing what she looks for - and you are left with a sense of the futility of all the choices we make, ultimately. By the end of the book, Ayodele has done everything, and done nothing and, as we know (having caught glimpses of her other possible futures) this is the only way it could end. 'I wish I could go back and... and change things", a thousand bad movie actors have said. Maybe someone should get them a copy of this novel, so they'll stop being deluded.

Reading the Ceiling is Dayo Forster's first novel. You can get it on the publisher's website here.

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