Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson

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Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Terrific characters in this coming of age story set in the Niger delta. Be prepared for stories of birthing and discussions about female circumcision though.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9781849163750

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Tiny Sunbirds Far Away starts in Lagos but soon moves to the rural, oil producing Niger Delta. This allows Christie Watson's young narrator, 12 year old Blessing, to view the traditional ways afresh. It's a clever device and young Blessing is shocked by the rural conditions after a relatively luxurious life in Lagos with a good school and a modern apartment. But when her mother discovers her father on top of another woman, she takes Blessing and her older brother, the asthmatic Ezikiel, back to her family home.

Watson's great strength is the colourful characterizations. Blessing's grandfather, Alhaji, is an out of work, proud Muslim man who is convinced of his ability to transform the environmental damage caused by the Western Oil Company, if only they would give him a job and in the strange curative powers of Marmite. Her grandmother is a wise lady who serves the local community as a 'birth attendant'. Not long after Blessing's arrival, a new family member enters the scene in the large form of Celestine, the young girl Alhahi takes as a second wife, whose faith in the powers of lycra almost match her new husband's faith in Marmite. She is a terrific character and adds greatly to the book. Meanwhile Blessing's mother goes to work at the oil company compound leaving Blessing to assist her grandmother in delivering local babies and Ezikiel to abandon his desires to be a doctor and to go off the rails.

While Watson captures a lot of the issues well from a child's perspective, from tribal conflict to the politics of the oil company and resulting race issues, as well as the traditional versus modern ways, I felt less convinced by the sense of place. In particular I never got a clear picture of the layout of the grandparents' house and found myself getting a little confused by the geography of the comings and goings.

As with many first novels, I was also left with a sense that it would have benefited from slightly more stringent editing. Some things are repeated - one character's hair is nicely likened to the wings of a cockroach in colour but then later a cockroach's wings are likened to that same character's hair which seemed to labour the point a little too much. At the same time other things that should be repeated are not. Much play is made of Blessing learning to collect the water from the local tap which is to be her chore, but she never seems to do it again. We are told that her grandfather has converted to Islam, but why is never explained. In themselves they are minor points but it leaves the book in the 'very good' rather than 'excellent' category.

It's also a book that will probably appeal more to a female readership. There's plenty of detail about the problems of births and also the sensitive subject of female circumcision, or 'cutting'.

It's a book that well deserves its place on the Costa Prize shortlist though - it's classic Costa prize fare with plenty of humour and genuine emotion, particularly towards the end. It would take a cold heart not to be genuinely moved by Blessing's story, but for all the important issues, it avoids being too 'worthy' and the cast of characters is wonderful. I guarantee that you will think of these characters again whenever you see lycra or Marmite.

Our thanks to the kind folk at Quercus for sending us this book.

There's a lot of very good African-base fiction around at the moment - it's become a bit like the new India in fiction terms. For more great characters and some of the same issues, particularly those arising from multiple wives, then The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin is an absolute joy.

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Buy Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson at Amazon.com.

Booklists.jpg Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson is in the Costa Prize 2011.


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