Tag Archives: Sceptre

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré 

I have, in previous posts, declared that I would not read novels with ‘girl’ in the title. But I made an exception for this one because it was recommended by readers I respect, and because the main character is a girl. She is fourteen when the novel opens.

And being a girl of 14, it is shocking that the novel opens with the scene where Adunni’s father tells her that he has negotiated with Morufu for her to become his third wife. Her father will receive a generous bride price. This will end Adunni’s ambition to become a girl with a louding voice.

The Girl with the Louding Voice

Adunni is a girl of 14, brought up in Ikati, a village in rural Nigeria. She is the narrator of her story. Her mother died and she is left with two brothers and a father. The family are very poor, and Adunni has already had to give up primary school to take on her mother’s domestic duties. She has an ambition: to become a girl with a louding voice. Here louding means something like amplification, but also confidence. She explains her ambitions to her friend Ms Tia.

‘My mama say education will give me a voice. I want more than just a voice, Ms Tia. I want a louding voice,’ I say. ‘I want to enter a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping. Think it, Ms Tia. If I can go to school and become a teacher, then I can collect my salary and maybe even build my own school in Ikati and be teaching the girls. The girls in my village don’t have much chance for school. I want to change that, Ms Tia, because those girls, they will grow up and born many more great people to make Nigeria even more better than now.’ (224)

On her marriage she goes to live in Morufu’s compound, where she finds his two wives and some daughters. Adunni must endure much for Morufu’s wish for a son. She makes friends with his second wife, Kadije. When Kadije is nearly ready to deliver her baby the two younger wives go to a nearby village apparently to consult with a midwife. But here disaster happens and Adunni must escape the village for ever.

She is trafficked to Lagos, where she works for no wages as a house girl for Big Madam. Here is her description of her first meeting with Big Madam as her employer gets out of her car.

First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint in all the toenails: red, green, orange, purple, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. …
She take two step near to us, then I am seeing her face well. Her face is looking like one devil-child vex with her and paint it with his feets. On top of the orange powder on her face, there is a red line on the two both eyebrows which she is drawing all the way out to her ears. Green powder on the eyelids. Lips with gold lipstick, two cheeks full of red powder. (122-3)

At first it seems as if she has escaped from Ikati and the torments of her marriage to Morufu only to experience slave conditions in the household of the wealthy businesswoman. Her life is made more difficult by Big Papa, who tries to rape her. He is the most despicable of all the characters: he betrays Big Madam, even with her friend, seduces previous house girls, lives off Big Madam and has no job.

But while her time with Big Madam is difficult, she is befriended by Kofi, the Ghanaian cook, and Abu the Muslim driver. She also meets the neighbour, Ms Tia, who is not in the same mould as Big Madam and her rich friends. All three help Adunni to enter a competition for female domestic servants to receive a scholarship to study at school. The drama between Big Madam and Papa allows her eventual freedom.

A day will come when my voice will sound so loud all over Nigeria and the world of it, when I will be able to make a way for other girls to have their own louding voice because I know, that when I finish my education, I will find a way to help them go to school. (312)

Adunni’s story is a very engaging one. To start with she is very young and with few resources to face the obstacles to her ambition. But she has determination, and a very likeable honesty and has deeply rooted integrity. 

Additionally, the author has created a very appealing voice for her narrator. The malapropisms in her use of the English language, not her first language, draws attention to her naivety and her clear sightedness. The reader is forced to see the story from the point of view of an ill-educated but determined and intelligent young woman. Her own voice is louding because she describes the misogyny, the exploitation of young women, the lack of integrity she encounters in Lagos and pursues her ambitions with such determination.

Abi Daré

Abi Daré

Abi Daré was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to the UK for her university education. She now lives with her partner and children in Essex. The Girl with the Louding Voice is her first novel and has been well received. It was a New York Times bestseller, chosen as a Book at Bedtime for Radio 4. She was included in the Guardian’s list of 10 best debut novelists in 2020.

I look forward to more from Abi Daré.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré was published in 2020 by Sceptre. 314pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing