Book Review: Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig BreadFrancesca 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.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi”

  1. This book sounds challenging, and I must confess I don’t quite understand the function of the spirit part of the mother’s character. If she denies what it does (makes her die and reborn), what does this part of her character add to the novel?

    1. So I don’t want to give too much away but essentially it creates this character who is (or believes she is) not supposed to be alive. She finds being alive both beautiful and extremely painful. And at various points she attempts to intervene for the lives of others because she is still in contact with her spirit kin. I read it as a metaphor for depression or mental illness though the book leaves that ambiguous. In the present day sections, when we see her from the perspective of her daughters, she is loving but unreliable and unaware of a lot of what her children have experienced.

    2. Ohhhhh, I see what you mean. Depression sounds on the nose. And then helping others — that part sounds interesting! Honestly, this sounds a lot like the experiences with one of my aunts, who is schizophrenic and disconnected from her children’s experiences.

    3. It made for a really interesting exploration, I think. Because you could read it as a sort of magic realism, she really is this spirit. Or she is dealing with a serious depression but doesn’t have the language to speak about it.

  2. Great review, this sounds really interesting! I think Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is the only book I’ve read so far that features Ogbanje, and it sounds like Ekwuyasi approaches that subject slightly differently; I’ve been curious for a while to read more about Ogbanje because they really challenged my very Western view of mental health. Perhaps I will give this one a go and see whether it can further enlighten me.

    1. It was a really interesting exploration of mental illness. The book itself never says it but it seemed pretty clear to me that that was what was happening to her. Some parts of it reminded me a little of The Orchestra of Minorities which I read a couple of years ago.

    2. Ah, I had issues with The Orchestra of Minorities but liked its themes and concept- maybe this will be a better fit!

  3. The premise of this book sounds complicated, no matter how many times I read it. It must be good based on all the praise it’s received, but I’m still a bit hesitant. The food descriptions sound amazing though!

    1. It sounds complicated but it’s very readable and I think once you start, it comes together well. And the food is so well written! At times there are almost recipes incorporated but in a really natural way.

  4. I’ve only come across the idea of Ogbanje in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and found it such a sad belief because of what it hints at about the frequency of infant death in the society. That book also spoke of the tradition that new-born twins would be left outside to die, so I was worried when you mentioned her twin daughters!

  5. As you know, I loved this book. I’m glad you got a chance to read it! The food writing added so much goodness to the story, didn’t it?

    1. It really did! Sometimes cooking descriptions feel a little overdone to me in novels but this was integrated so naturally and really added to the setting and the character.

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