Guest Review by Terence Jagger
Terence Jagger is one of our trusty Shiny reviewers, and wrote this for us -- unfortunately, owing to some crossed wires, someone else was already reviewing the novel for the June issue. SoI said I'd post the review on here instead, and here it is. It sounds great!
This is a lovely book. It’s short, and in many ways, it is quite slight – it deals with small personal matters, an old lady’s memories and her little everyday human contacts, but it is surprising, funny and entirely charming. The central character is Dr Morayo Da Silva, who is elderly but full of fizz and go – she drives an ancient Porsche called Buttercup with great élan and dangerously poor eyesight; like her creator, she is Nigerian but living in California. This is how we meet her, at the very beginning of the novel:
The place where I live is ancient. ‘Old but sturdy,’ our landlady tells us. 500 Belgrave is so strong, apparently, that it withstood the 1906 earthquake. ‘Didn’t even bust a single crack,’ is what the landlady says. But between you and me, I wouldn’t bet on history repeating itself. It’s the reason why I live on the top floor, for if this building collapses, then at least they won’t have far to dig me out. Of course, I don’t wish any harm to my neighbours [….] I’d like to imagine that when the big one strikes, we’d all be gathered at my place, enjoying a glass of wine, and we’d ride the whole thing out and live to tell the tale. But who knows, when the earth finally decides that it’s tired of fidgeting and needs a proper stretch, I might be the one walking downstairs; if that’s the case, then the only survivors will be my books – hundreds of them – to keep each other company.
Our building used to be a single family house, but now it’s home to four separate units and I’ve been living in one of these for twenty years. This must be somewhat annoying to my poor landlady, for in this city of rent controls she could charge a new tenant much more than she charges me. Not that the apartment is anything spectacular mind you; it’s just one small bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. But it’s the view that matters in San Francisco. And my view, oh yes, my view is magnifique.
When you stand at the kitchen sink you can see all the colourful houses of Haight Ashbury. And beyond these, the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Presidio that stretch across to the bay where, on a clear day, the waters shimmer azure blue. So I have no intention of moving, and the landlady must know that what she loses in rent, she gains by having someone reliable like me keeping a watchful eye on the property. For I, like this building, am ancient. Ancient if you’re going by Nigerian standards, where I’ve outfoxed the female life expectancy by nearly two decades.
The novel is the tale of her daily engagements with life, her flirtation with the postman, her warmth to the homeless girl, the man who runs the flower shop, even her attempt to chat with the call centre worker who tells her she needs a medical test if she is to continue driving. Then she has a fall and is taken to hospital, and spends time both remembering her life – which she absolutely does not think is nearly over – and being thought of by some of the people she has been in touch with – her long term friend Sunshine, and some of the other people who have just passed in the night. It is a joyful, amusing and touching account of the impact one warm personality has on all the people around her. So here is a homeless girl who’s had one passing conversation with her:
Okay, so the other day this black lady comes up to me. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m just saying, she was black. And tall and old. Not old-old, but definitely older than me: old enough to be my mom, maybe even my grandma. So anyway, she sees that I’m carrying all this shit, plus I had the dog so I guess she kinda felt sorry for me and then she kinda like asked me if I was okay. But sometimes you get tired of people looking at you like you need pity and shit like that. Yeah, I’m homeless! But so what? Maybe that’s what I shoulda said, but the words don’t always come out when you want them to. […] Well, maybe her heart was broken, you know, and I shouldn’t have been so like, ‘I don’t wanna talk to you.’ You just never know. Be kind. Be kind. That’s my new motto.
But there is a more serious side, too, though very lightly handled – reminiscences of past relationships, including an unfaithful husband and a wonderful lover; thoughts of returning to Nigeria, which she knows wouldn’t work, her home town being in the north where Boko Haram now threaten and Lagos an alien city after so long away. But all her energy, her colour – and the colour of her clothes, which bring back the
smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton – diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood…the flamboyance and craziness of the megacity – reflects and enlivens the open, diverse and slightly crazy California she has grown to be a part of, and we enjoy her life and the city, and we accept that she, at 75, still has a great future.
This is Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s second novel – the first was In Dependence, a multigenerational novel of the first years of Nigeria’s independence, which I shall now make an effort to find – and is one of the first issues of Cassava Republic, newly established in London to help us find good writing from and about Africa. By the way, if you’re wondering about the title, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is taken from Mary Ruefle’s poem, Donkey On, which you can find online if you’re interested, including a YouTube clip of Ruefle reading it.
And when Morayo gets out of hospital, she plans to go back and see one of the friends she has made there, maybe a future lover – and, as she sets off to see him in the last paragraph of the novel, she talks to her car:
‘Come on, baby, we can make this light!’ I down shift to third and I hear you roar back. ‘Well done, my lion,’ I smile, glancing in the rear-view mirror to see how many cars we’ve left behind. ‘One, two, three, four!’ I laugh. This will be a great drive. I can just feel it in my bones. ‘Come on now, Buttercup, let’s make this next light! Let’s overtake this slowpoke in front of us. Come on baby, gimme what you got.’ I rev the engine, sit up tall, and roaring, we go.
Terence Jagger loves the dynamism and colour of Nigeria, but had not thought to find it in California.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic, 2016). 978-1911115045, 118pp., softback.