This is the third of my ten African books this year, and my favorite so far. The chapters are short and poignant but flow together to paint a larger, brighter picture of traditional African society and one woman’s place in it. The characters live hard, determined lives. There’s a drastic distance between rural village and urban (Lagos, in this case.) It reminded me a bit of Things Fall Apart, since the story is told plainly, almost in the style of a folk tale through the perspective of one character who is only trying to play the hand she’s been dealt.
Nnu Ego is our heroine. Born to the mistress of a powerful tribal chief, she is sent away from her first marriage because she fails to have children. She eventually marries a man in Lagos, a far cry from her native rural town, a very difficult adjustment only made easier when she finally gets pregnant. I won’t give the story away. Suffice to say that she does eventually become a mother–and the road is treacherous. She graduallly realizes that the honored role of being a mother in her society comes with invisible chains. At the same time, Nigerian society begins to change around her: colonialism and traditionalism are being replaced by self-rule and modernity.
If you hadn’t guessed by the fact that this story is about a woman’s life in the traditional Nigerian society in the 1930s, the title “the joys of motherhood” is ironic. This is a story about a woman realizing the weight of the patriarchy. Nnu Ego realizes as she reaches middle age that these children she hoped for so desperately and works so hard for are indeed a blessing–but sometimes a curse. Her ne’er-do-well husband takes the credit for the good and blames for the bad. She works from dawn to dusk to feed her family and make ends meet while her husband spends his earnings on palm wine–and every complaint she utters is met with a shrug. “You’re the mother of sons! What more could a woman want?!” Although Nnu Ego’s love for her children is real, it comes with overwhelming doses of sorrow.
Rating: 5/5. I was hooked on page one, where a young, healthy woman runs like a madwoman through the crowded streets of Lagos, intent on throwing herself into the river. Emecheta writes unflinchingly, with a fast clip and her descriptions are precise but not flowery. With plain words, keen observations, and honest descriptions, she makes it impossible not to root for Nnu Ego and impossible not to think about the weight of motherhood on a woman’s–any woman’s–shoulders. The ending is sad, but satisfying, exactly how a book like this has to end.
Read this book. And call your mom.