When Book of the Month released their top five reader-voted Book of the Year finalists, I was in a bit of a sweat. I’m one of those subscribers that has two boxes, so I realized there was a good shot that I would have read them all! But luckily, there was one novel that I hadn’t picked up: The Girl With the Louding Voice. It’s one of those stories I have heard nothing but praise for, and it was certainly one of those “wish-I-had-chosen-that” books. I was fortunate to be able to use my free add-on to get this novel and read it along with one of my closest friends, Maggie!
Quick synopsis: This story follows Adunni, a bright 14-year-old Nigerian girl who dreams of completing her education. Despite the many obstacles she faces, she never loses sight of her dream to go to school, escape her poverty, and help other girls do the same, ultimately seeking the strength to find her own “louding” voice along the way.
This story was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Told in broken English from Adunni’s perspective, it was a slower read as I digested each word of Adunni’s story. More than anything, I was so touched by her spirit and resiliency. And reading her story in first-person made it feel so much more personal and real. It felt like she was sitting next to me, just having a conversation about her life and experiences.
I think one of the most original things that this book included were fun facts about Nigeria that started each chapter toward the second half of the novel. As Adunni begins to work her way through a book full of facts on Nigeria, the author weaves them into each chapter, in ways that are either subtly or obviously related to that particular chapter.
I think we as readers need to really put emphasis on Own Voices storytelling — that is, diverse stories written by authors who have lived or are living the experiences of the characters they are writing about. Reading these facts was a way to show that Nigeria is a thriving, beautiful, powerhouse country, not the stereotype that many Western readers (myself included!) may view or have viewed Africa as. While Adunni’s story certainly illustrated some of the backward ways that Nigeria works when it comes to girls’ and women’s roles and values in society, these facts along with many multi-faceted female characters truly painted a view of Nigeria that was new to me and helped me recognize and shake the backward stereotypes I had in my head. This is why Own Voices stories are so vital!
Warning: the following contains some spoilers. Keep reading at your own risk!
I think my favorite part of this story were all of the strong, multifaceted female characters. Adunni, as the narrator and protagonist, was an obvious favorite, as the whole story hinges on her story. From the start, you want to root for her. She is sharp-tongued, opinionated, and brave, even in a man’s world that keeps beating her down (metaphorically and literally), from her father to her husband to her employer’s husband.
First, I loved Khadija, the second wife of Morufu, who really becomes a mother/older sister figure to Adunni. Even in that horrific time for Adunni, away from home and the third wife to a man she doesn’t love, Khadija shows Adunni such tender love and grace.
I also adored Tia, who becomes her mentor and teacher. She was just so easy to like — she definitely contrasted with the other neighborhood women who still followed the much stricter cultural values for women, such as marriage and children. I think her introduction just really aided Adunni in showing her what a life as a modern Nigerian woman can look like, but I was also deeply touched by Adunni’s role in helping Tia grow as a person and learn more about herself, even as a grown woman.
Big Madam was easily the most complex of all of the female characters — and 99% of the time, she was deeply unlikable. I hated the way she treated Adunni, from the physical and emotional abuse to the downright hatred and bullying. But Big Madam also was the perfect mirror of how the values placed on women in Nigeria can create this toxic attitude. While she does some downright horrific things, she also is subject to a culture that forces her to believe that marriage and children are more important than anything else, forcing her to settle for a husband that cheats on her, hurts and sexually abuses young women, and abuses her. Even while I strongly disliked her, there were moments between Adunni and her that really showed Big Madam’s human, vulnerable side.
But most importantly, perhaps, I most adored Adunni’s mother. While she was never present in the novel, having passed before Adunni’s story begins, she was such a fully present character. It is clear that she deeply shapes Adunni’s hopes, dreams, and veracity for life, and Adunni never forgets her mother’s dream that Adunni continue her education and forge a better life for herself.