by Tara Menon
Abi Daré’s debut novel, The Girl with the Louding Voice, stands out for the seductive, original voice of the adolescent narrator, Adunni, who narrates her tale in broken Nigerian English. Readers will admire the way fourteen-year-old Adunni unfolds her story, combining the wisdom of someone much older with the innocence of a young teen. And the story is not an easy one: there is the early loss of her mother, a child marriage to a polygamist, and becoming a victim of human slave trafficking. Daré introduces us to villagers and Lagosians, exposes us to the exploited and the rich, and gives us kind and cruel characters, weaving a rich, modern tapestry of a tale.
In a Nigerian village where girls hold little value, Adunni’s father tells her that Morufu is a good man because he’ll pay their rent. “That is good?” she asks, and then her wisdom shines through: “I ask the question because it didn’t make sense. Because I know that no man will be paying for another somebody’s rent unless he is wanting something.” Adunni learns she will marry Morufu, an old taxi driver, and she wonders what will become of her younger brother whom she takes care of.
She dreams of getting an education, though she has stopped going to school. Still distraught over the death of her mother, Adunni laments her father’s broken promise to his dying wife that he would educate their daughter. “I see Mama as a rose flower. But this rose is no more having yellow and red and purple colors with shining leafs. This flower be the brown of a wet leaf that suffer a stamping from the dirty feets of a man that forget the promise he make to his dead wife.”
Adunni is traumatized by Morufu, who also tyrannizes her two co-wives and his four children. Fleeing him, she falls prey to a human slave trafficker. He hands her over to an extremely abusive and violent mistress. Daré seems to tell us that women can be as cruel as men in regards to their own sex. However, all but one of Adunni’s exploiters are men, reflecting the unequal balance of power between the genders in Nigerian villages and cities.
In the girl’s new incarnation as a servant, she meets two people who want to help her. We know her only true escape will be through the fulfillment of her dream, which in her enslavement seems impossible. Despite everything she’s been through, Adunni, whose name means “sweetness,” never loses her innate goodness. Throughout her story, when she is undervalued as a daughter, wife, and servant, Daré brings out her worth by demonstrating how capable, smart, and kind she is. The writer shows how the powerful control others but not themselves. Conversely, the powerless have little control over their own lives but their minds are their own.
From the beginning, Adunni’s voice as a storyteller possesses an irrepressible quality. Her voice lends humor, pathos, and irony. She gives us a satirical portrait of high society and the way Christianity is practiced, and exposes the harmful remedies used to counteract superstitious beliefs.
In the acknowledgements, the reader learns there was a girl called Adunni who shared her story with the writer. For readers unfamiliar with lives like the fictional eponymous character’s, learning Daré was inspired by a real person helps us understand what these exploited girls face—their realities are as incredible as the events in the novel.
Many girls are trapped by customs, traditions, expectations, roles, and people in their lives who view them not as victims but rather as commodities and beneficiaries of the bounty of men. Adunni demonstrates understandable fear of the developments in her life, but also remarkable courage and resourcefulness in trying to forge a better path for herself. She is constantly silenced and is, for a long time, incapable of articulating her suffering at Morufu’s hands. This book reminds us that girls and women still have enormous odds against them in the twenty-first century. Fortunately, there are kind and helpful people, too, who take risks to help these girls.
Just as in Tara Westover’s Education and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, education seems like Adunni’s way out in The Girl with the Louding Voice. Like Westover, Adunni needs to escape a domineering father who leads her into danger. The two memoirists reveal the transformative powers of education, whereas in The Girl with the Louding Voice, Daré dangles its saving power. Thanks to Adunni’s mother’s dream for her and the girl’s own sharp mind, she knows she needs to go to school, in spite of the men who think her place is at home. Adunni questions the inequality she observes, her words simultaneously reflecting her cleverness and innocence: “I think about this, why the mens in the village are not letting many of the girls go to school, but they are not minding when the womens are bringing firewood and going to market and cooking for them?”
The Girl with the Louding Voice By Abi Daré New York: Dutton, February, 2020, 368 pp. $26.00
Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her book reviews have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Green Mountains Review, Color Magazine, Fjords Review, Na’amat Woman, Calyx, India Currents, and Parabola. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies, including Blue Minaret, The Bangalore Review, voices of eve, Calliope, Lalitamba, Azizah Magazine, and Aaduna. Her fiction is forthcoming in Evening Street Review. Her short stories have been published in Catamaran, The APA Journal, Many Mountains Moving, India Currents, The South Carolina Review, Living in America and Mother of the Groom.