Review: A bit of difference – Sefi Atta

The pace of Sefi Atta’s latest novel, A Bit of Difference  is leisurely; it’s deliberately understated in style, but do resist the impulse to dismiss it for a more incendiary read; the story is told entirely from protagonist Deola Bello’s point of view, and Deola has a tendency to digress; these digressions do prove crucial, for its Deola’s meandering but incisive commentary which elevates this simple story from enjoyable to enlightening.

The deviations from the central plot give depth to the narrative which ranges over several pivotal months in the life of a single woman who after years away from Nigeria, the country she still calls home, has to decide whether she is ready to return.

There’s potent and biting critique of the charity sector and those who make their living in it, in Deola’s thoughts on her job as an accountant who audits an international charity’s projects.  Her first observations of a soon to be colleague Graham illustrate the wit which permeates the novel.

Deola notices that Graham’s office is full of souvenirs like clay bowls and carvings, she thinks, “she couldn’t stop looking at them during the interview and she was not sure if they calmed her down or put her off. Even back then she knew Graham would prefer the most European of African countries, like South Africa and Kenya. She knew she would stand a better chance with him if she presented herself as an African in need.”

Atta imbues Deola’s voice with delicious perceptiveness and irony. In  her observations of her friends in London – Subu, a bible bashing investment banker and Harrow educated Bandele, a misanthropic James Baldwin loving writer whose choice of profession and bouts of depression have made him the black sheep of his family there’s a  sympathetic critique of a migrant elite far removed from the African as victim more commonly the subject of western media; Atta even cocks a snook at the pre-occupations of  relatively privileged African writers in the mould of Bandele, when he vents his frustration after missing out on a literary prize to a fellow Nigerian tha a prize administrator who describes the winner as needing it more.

When Atta’s protagonist engineers a work trip to Nigeria to coincide with a memorial to commemorate the fifth anniversary of her father’s death her sharp wit turns to Nigeria’s bourgeoisie. Her deliberations on her extended family expose the troubles plaguing modern day Nigeria’s ruling class. Marital breakdowns and infidelity, materialism and the rise of fundamentalist Christian churches are all examined.’

At the heart of the novel is a central character who readers will warm to; in  less able hands, the privileged Deola’s slight melancholy might be dismissed as self-indulgence or churlishness but instead it she elicits her empathy, as Atta perfectly hones in on the emptiness which so often epitomises modern life with its emphasis on the individual; the overall effect is a pithy analysis of contemporary Nigeria and a character you will want things to work out well for.

Sefi Atta’s A Bit of Difference is published by Harpercollins

Reviewed By: Lynette Lisk