From this book’s title, I expected this to be a heartwarming story about motherhood and all the smiles and butterflies that it comes with. A pretty shallow expectation, right? I know, don’t judge me. Unfortunately for me, this story was everything BUT joyful. I guess that’s what Buchi was going for; a raw, sincere experience of motherhood.
Before I discuss the storyline and the emotions I felt through the story, I would like to talk about how beautiful and authentic Buchi’s writing was from the very first page. I’m a sucker for stories set in Nigeria, precisely stories set in the 60s through to the 90s. I believe it’s a unique channel to an era I never got to experience.
The Joys of motherhood was set in 1909 to the late 1950s, which is an era I haven’t read much about in Nigerian books, which was exciting for me. From the first 100 pages of the book, I was honestly very impressed by how much information was packed in those little pages. Mrs. Emecheta was able to narrate the backstory of our protagonist, Nnu Ego, by first telling her parents’ life story. We were taken through roughly 20 years in 100 pages. I felt like I had experienced so many different stories in so little time. We got a firsthand experience of who Nnu Ego was from conception on a cold clay floor to her first marriage’s failure.
Emecheta was very apt in describing her characters and their environment. On the first page, we were introduced to Nnu Ego at her lowest point, or rather, one of her lowest points. She was suicidal and ready to end it all on Carter Bridge on a somewhat ill-fated morning. We met her husband, Nnaife, as a man who only cared about his new wife for her beauty and, because of that, quickly stopped caring about her after a few months. Through Emecheta’s writing, I was able to see Lagos at its baby stage, before it blossomed into this metropolitan city filled with abandoned, depleted historical monuments. A Lagos that was receiving its diverse guests in few numbers, unlike today, where it’s overflowing with thousands of cultures worldwide. She created a very vivid picture of her characters and their surroundings, I could easily picture them as a family down the street.
The patriarchy in this era was fully captured through the dialogue in this book. I often found myself getting physically upset by some remarks or comments made by the characters, but hey, it’s 1910, no one cared about women in Nigeria.
The Joys of Motherhood follows a story of a young woman and her unending, undying love for her children. Instead, the life she expected her children would give her. As a young woman growing up in 20th century Nigeria, Nnu Ego was obsessed with the idea of getting married and starting her family, as most women were expected to. She adored the idea of having a son who would become successful and give her the good life she deserved for raising him. She was so clouded with that desire, she used that as a consolation blanket during her hard moments. Her desire to have children complete the puzzle that is her life at first was exciting, it’s perfectly normal to want to have a family of your own. Still, I quickly grew tired of her obsession. For a family living in abject poverty and a woman who was a single mother for the majority of her life, it was becoming blatantly foolish to keep having more children. Did they not know the meaning of abstinence? I guess not.
Her character development in the story was full of ups and downs, mainly downs and I kept wondering, could this woman ever catch a break? If her husband wasn’t a pain to her, she was mentally competing with her co-wife and losing if I may say. I found her keen sense of entrepreneurial skills very liberating. It seemed to be the one aspect of her life she had control over. I tried to sympathize with her choices through the book, continually reminding myself the times were different. Her deeply patriarchal environment influenced many of her life decisions, and I understood that.
It was a tough book to finish if I’m honest and not because it’s a bad book, but because I had become emotionally attached to Nnu Ego and couldn’t stomach the unfortunate events she had to go through in her life. The Gen Z in me wished she had the courage to do something more for herself, make a name for herself the way her co-wife did and become a successful entrepreneur like she started off being. I wished she had not allowed herself to become a shadow in an attempt to raise children. I felt a deeper connection to the story after realizing a lot of its details were drawn from Buchi Emecheta’s reality. It made the story more real than it had been to me.
The book has many lessons to teach, not just women, but Africans. I learnt a whole lot about an era in Nigeria that was only documented from a political angle. I was able to see Nigeria through the eyes of a regular Ibusa woman.