Thursday, 3 January 2019

The Bead Collector by Sefi Atta

The Bead Collector by Sefi Atta
Published by Interlink in September 2018.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lagos, January 1976, six years after the Nigerian Civil War. A new military regime has been in power for six months, but rumors are spreading that a countercoup is imminent. At an art exhibition in the affluent Ikoyi neighborhood, Remi Lawal, a Nigerian woman who runs her own greeting-card shop, meets Frances Cooke, who introduces herself as an American art dealer, in Nigeria to buy rare beads. They become friends and over the next few weeks confide in each other about their aspirations, loyalties, marriage, motherhood and Nigeria itself, as hospitable Remi welcomes the enigmatic Frances into her world.

Remi's husband, Tunde, naturally suspects Frances "like any American in Lagos" of gathering intelligence for the CIA, yet she is unconvinced. Cynical about the country's unending instability, and alienated by the shallowness of the city's elite, she willingly shares her views with Frances. But the February 13 assassination of General Muhammed prompts Remi to reconsider one particular conversation with her new acquaintance in a different light. Her discouragement overcome by a reawakened sense of patriotism, she begins to doubt that the bead collector is who she claims to be. With her signature subtlety and wit, Sefi Atta recasts the international espionage tale by bringing the intrigue and politics of family life to the fore. The story of a brief friendship, The Bead Collector reveals one Nigerian mother's yearning amid legacies of conflict and uncertainty to help build her country from home.

I was excited to read The Bead Collector because its publisher, Interlink, is also the publisher for one of my favourite authors, Mhani Alaoui, so I had high hopes that Atta's writing style would similarly appeal to me. Unfortunately that turned out not to be the case and I finished The Bead Collector feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The story is set in a tumultuous period in Nigeria's history and features a diverse cast of characters. I didn't ever feel that I became immersed into any of their stories though. Even our narrator, Remi, felt to be always keeping herself one step removed from the reader. I could appreciate her thoughts and experiences on a cerebral level, but I wasn't invested emotionally so the story didn't truly come alive for me. I was reminded of my recent read The Passion According To Carmela by Marcos Aguinis which is similarly set in a historically significant era (the Cuban Revolution in that case) and which I didn't think made the most of either its setting or its characters.

The Bead Collector incorporates a large cast of characters most of whose back stories we are told as soon as we meet them which keeps the novel's pace slow. Atta does a lot of telling with very little showing and I think this is probably the main cause of my dissatisfaction. A lot happens within the story by way of people's marriages breaking up and social intrigues at the Golf Club, and there is the ever-present threat of another military coup plunging Nigeria into a second vicious civil war. Tension is lacking though and I totally failed to understand why Frances was considered a spy and what in her conversations with Remi could have alluded to this belief. In fact it wasn't until I reread the synopsis that I realised The Bead Collector is meant to be 'an international espionage tale'. From my perspective it was more a women's fiction gossip story set in a fairly closed and claustrophobic community. I don't regret having taken the time to read The Bead Collector, but this novel wasn't particularly suited to my reading tastes.

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  1. This does sound like the sort of book I generally enjoy, so I'm disappointed to hear that it underwhelmed you.

    1. For me there was too much telling and not enough shoeing so I generally felt removed from the story and didn't appreciate the characters motivations

  2. I don't think I will pick this one up and I am sorry it underwhelmed you. I was interested because of the time period it was set in after Nigerian's civil war but it sounds like this isn't the best story to learn more about that because it left you disengaged. But I will be on the look out for other books set around this time period in Nigeria that might be able to do it better.

    1. If you haven't read Half Of A Yellow Sun yet then that could be the one to choose. It's a little earlier and Adichie is just amazing in the way she teaches through fiction :-)