Home > African Literature, Sefi Atta > #19. A Bit of Difference

#19. A Bit of Difference

I haven’t read a more satisfying novel in such a long while. The plot is deceptively simple: a Nigerian woman who has been living and working in London for years decides to go to home to Lagos for a business trip. She is 39 and lonely; she hasn’t met a man that she has felt attracted to in a very long time. At her hotel in Lagos, she meets Wale – a man attractive enough to qualify for a one-night stand. She sleeps with him. The one-night stand is not without its consequences. This is the story at the heart of the book. But Sefi Atta is preoccupied with exploring the condition of the Nigerian immigrant or the Nigerian in London. She tells Deola’s story in wonderful minute detail. We experience her relationship with her family, her friends, and her work colleagues. We know intimately her thoughts and her feelings and we can see her world too – Atta’s descriptions are simple and clean, but sharply evocative. What’s more, her use of dialogue is fantastic. Several times Deola communicates with friends and family over the phone, but each time the conversations are immediate and believable. Even without conversational markers such as “he said” or “she said,” the reader knows exactly who is speaking and when because Atta’s voice details are distinctive. Sometimes I felt as though I could hear the characters speaking directly to me.

Reading Atta has been a miraculous experience for me. In my Creative Writing classes, I have been encouraged to show and not tell. Exposition is for journalists. The burden for a fiction writer is to describe a plausible world and to do it precisely. Prose that is dry and sparse is prose to be admired; it has a sort of angular beauty. But Atta manages to blur the distinction between “description” and “exposition.” She writes like a storyteller who does not want to forget a single detail, even if, sometimes, the details or the life histories of certain characters have to be told in short-form:

“Aunty Bisi is her mother’s younger sister, who spent holidays in their house when she was in university. The guestroom was hers. She taught Deola and her siblings songs like ‘Ruby Tuesday.’ Once in a while she saved them from punishments. Her mother paid for Aunty Bisi’s education and training as a chartered secretary. Aunty Bisi must have felt indebted from then on because she was always around, helping with Christmas parties, weddings, and other family functions.”

This is a whole life, compressed; this is blatant “telling.” And yet it works. Atta’s writing/ storytelling seems to me completely unselfconscious – almost intuitive – and so I have enjoyed it thoroughly. It has given me license to start to write the way she does – to simply tell a story in a way that feels natural and damn the technicalities.

I am going to miss the characters in this book. And I am impatient even now to read more of Sefi Atta’s work, but I am sure also that this is a book that I will return to in the future. It is too rich to read only once.

4 stars


I am officially a Sefi Atta fan.

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