Butter Honey Pig Bread – Francesca Ekwuyasi (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020)
Kambirinachi is living a life that she should not have. She is, or believes she is, an Ogbanje, a spirit that torments its human mother by being born and dying over and over again. Except that Kambirinachi has, against the advice and desires of her spirit Kin, chosen to live. As a child she is painfully different, struggling to understand and fit in to her human life. Her mother, traumatized by the losses of her previous children, is emotionally distant and when Kambirinachi’s father dies, the divide between them is too great to overcome.
This novel moves between Kambirinachi’s growing up and the perspectives, years later, of her two adult daughters. Kehinde and Taiye are twins. Once close, they have been distant from each other for years. Both have left Nigeria and moved to different parts of the globe but now, in the present tense of the novel, both daughters have returned to their childhood home where Kambirinachi lives.
The novel moves smoothly between these three perspectives. The somewhat ethereal, spirit-filled childhood of Kambirinachi. Her young adulthood, haunted by the constant pull of her spirit Kin attempting to call her home. The happiness she finds in marriage and a new life with the man she loves. The tragedy of his death and the unspooling of the family that results in the emotional separation of the twins.
We learn of Taiye’s life, the first to leave Lagos and Nigeria, first for the UK and then for Halifax. Taiye develops her love of cooking and embraces her love of women. She is passionate and destructive, headstrong and affectionate. Once the silent twin, letting Kehinde speak for her, she must learn as an adult to forge her own identity. Taiye seemed to me to be the main pulse of the novel, the character who most went out and did things and who I was most interested in. It felt like we followed her most intimately in her relationships and her interests. Taiye’s passion for food is particularly evocative and Ekwuyasi excels at mouthwatering descriptions of cooking and eating.
Kehinde is the less daring sister, the one who seems more stable and safe but is also harbouring a deep trauma that drove her out of her childhood home and to Montreal. She is returning now to Lagos with her husband, Farouq, a man neither her sister nor her mother have ever met. While we get some of her background story and life as well, a lot of her section is focused on her reading of a series of letters from Taiye that Taiye never meant for her to read so, again, Taiye’s character comes out the stronger.
Together though, the three women’s lives are interwoven in a completely engaging and fascinating tale. It’s a story of life and death, of trauma and love, of food, and, perhaps, of mental illness and what makes our lives feel worthwhile to us. What makes us choose to push onward in the face of loss and tragedy.