First of all, the book’s cover is simply superb. It’s well designed, well conceived and really quite well suited to the story. I’m gushing because most covers of books by African writers are just horrible. In some cases, the covers are even demeaning. I think the practice was started by Heinemann and its African Writers Series. So I appreciate it all the more when a publisher like the Nigerian-based Cassava Republic makes the effort to put together a cover that complements and celebrates the author’s work. And kudos to the illustrator, Lynn Hatzius, for the design.
In Dependence (2009), a story that spans three continents and four decades, starts with the following lines:
“One could begin with the dust, the heat and the purple bougainvillea. One might even begin with the smell of rotting mangos tossed by the side of the road where the flies hummed and green-bellied lizards bobbed their orange heads while loitering in the sun. But Tayo did not notice these – instead he walked in silence, oblivious to his surroundings.”
It is September 1963 and Nigeria is three years into its independence from colonial rule. The young Tayo Ajayi prepares to set sail for England where he has been accepted into Oxford University on a scholarship. Nigeria and Africa are abuzz with independence fervor. The continent is also at the beginning of its journey towards an expected bright and self-determined future. In Oxford, Tayo joins other young students, African and British, who talk about the Civil Rights Movement, the cultural and sexual revolutions, and about apartheid in South Africa. Malcolm X visits his college. It’s a rarefied world of the future leaders and intellectuals of Africa and the children of the old World order and the British Empire. Tayo meets and falls in love with Vanessa Richardson, a British colonial officer’s daughter. And they negotiate their relationship against a background of race and racism. Most notably, Vanessa’s father openly discourages any talk of marriage, implying that Tayo is not a suitable match for his daughter. Tayo also worries whether his family back in Nigeria will accept Vanessa. The couple’s relationship hits a stumbling block when Tayo is recalled to Nigeria to attend to his sick father. Tayo and Vanessa will find themselves again after 3 decades and a lifetime of events that will see their families ripped apart and a continent’s promise of a golden independence broken.
In Dependence is described as a love story. But it is more than that. It traces the trajectory of Nigeria’s political history; the military coups, the bad and treacherous leadership, and its renewed tentative steps towards democracy. It speaks to the demise (in the 1980s) of Nigeria’s international reputation and the country’s rapidly destabilizing reality. It looks at the poor whose situation never improved but actually worsened. Using events in Tayo’s life, it describes the effects of misrule on the country’s universities and the ensuing massive brain drain that Africa experienced in the 1980s. The author achieves all this with a voice and an outlook that is truly authentic and objective. I loved the scenes in the 1960s. I’m a child of 1970s Africa. My generation never had its golden moments. We were born in the long shadow cast by the events of the 1960s but came of age in an Africa gone horribly wrong. This novel displays the stark difference between these two eras.
Ultimately though, it is the love and the nature of the relationship between Tayo and Vanessa that captivates. There is a lightness and an intellectual buoyancy when the couple is together. Conversely, there is a flatness and a heaviness when they are apart. Cleverly, the years of destruction and decay in Nigeria occurs during their separation. As such, tumultuous events in Africa mirror the upheavals in their relationship. Tayo is more engaging, more open when Vanessa reappears. And the reader is treated once again to intellectual discourse on race, identity, post-colonial expectations and disappointments, as the two exchange letters.
This novel is so satisfying on many levels. I guess this is how I like my love stories served up; bittersweet with a good dose of social issues mixed in. The cast of characters and their portrayal also complements the story. Tayo is a man caught between what he feels to be his duty and what he wants to do. He loses his nerve at times that call for more decisive action. Vanessa is a strong and an independent woman who is unable or unwilling to help Tayo stay the course. Mistakes are made and there are enough regrets that lasts a lifetime. There is Miriam, who turns out not to be the stereotypical African wife. There was much in this novel to delight the feminist in me.
In Dependence is Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s debut novel. It is very well written and conceived. The author captures the mood and feel of all the different decades and the three continents that serve as settings for the story. Its scope is vast and sweeping. I really enjoyed the book and I look forward to more works from this writer. Highly recommended.