Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away: A Review
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is the coming of age story of twelve year old Blessing. After her mother catches her father with another woman, Blessing and her older brother Ezekiel are forced to leave their cushioned life in an Ikeja gated community for abject poverty in the Niger Delta. They move in with her grandparents and Celestine, her grandfather’s (much younger) second wife.
Besides the dire hardship resulting from their reversal of fortune, Blessing and Ezikiel also have to endure living in a polygamous home with all the ensuing drama. Their mother becomes newly irritable and prone to angry outbursts due to all the stressors. Living in the Delta presents a unique set of challenges especially for Ezikiel who becomes involved with the Sibeye Boys; gun boys who “stand for the Ijaw people” and forcefully try to reclaim oil riches for the people.
The one shining light for Blessing is that she begins to serve as a birth attendant with her grandmother who is a midwife. As the novel’s narrator, Blessing is smart, witty and imaginative. She is also incisive and full of heart. A fierce lover and the mediator in the family, she deeply loves her mother and brother. Even at times when it appears that she is the less favored child of her mother, her love is steadfast.
This novel explores a number of pressing matters in the Niger Delta from oil spillage, violence and poor infrastructure and how they affect the people. What appear to be local proverbs are littered within the story and it is clear that the author has worked hard to evoke an authentic experience for the reader. Watson also delves into female genital mutilation as a prevalent practice in the Niger Delta. Blessing’s grandmother reveals the foremost reason for FGM in a conversation when she says:
“A scratch from me is better than being butchered by another attendant. Some things you cannot stop from happening”.
I enjoyed Blessing’s narration for the most part, although there were a few occasions when I thought she was unrealistically articulate for her age, but that might be purely subjective. Celestine’s character was necessary comic relief for a story that often felt too heavy and intermittently slow. The bond between Blessing and her grandmother was heartwarming to observe and felt like the one true, good thing in this story.
A drawback for me is that at over four hundred pages, this story sometimes felt unnecessarily drawn out. Many times, it felt like I was just reading the goings and comings of their difficult life and while I recognize the author’s desire to show this, it felt too long. I also struggled with understanding the character of Blessing’s mother. She was consistently unstable and volatile for most of the story and I finished the story with a sense of still not having known her.
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is an important story about what happens when resources are mismanaged in a region. It is also eye opening because many of us live sheltered lives and it is easy to forget that other people live in war zones and under other unsettling circumstances. Yet, it is a story of hope, endurance and resilience.