Salvaging victory in a man’s world

Nightbloom, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a searching tale of family, friendships and nations, all of which come with their own imperfections, writes Pranavi Sharma.
Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 01:15 IST
Last Updated : 19 May 2024, 01:15 IST

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Nightbloom by Peace Adzo Medie, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, is the story of Akorfa and Selasi. Cousins, best friends and eventual rivals, they grow up on the same Ghanian soil in Mawuli Estate. Besides being born on the same day, the girls’ lives are painfully interconnected and punctuated with death, absence, overbearing presence, betrayal, and later, sisterhood: Inseparable since childhood, until one day a tragedy throws them under the same roof. And then chaos ensues.

The book is written in three parts starting with Akorfa’s narration of her life, as she lives it. As is the case with life, Akorfa’s account too, is biased and only part of the truth. She grows up in luxury, her father being a wealthy accountant, residing in a grand house. In contrast, Selasi’s upbringing is humble, raised by a loving mother with an absent father. From getting into the top private schools in Ghana to universities in America later, Akorfa is always on top of her game. She becomes increasingly discomforted by Selasi’s presence in her life: “Her very breath had already turned to splinters that I daily pulled out of my flesh.” The novel traverses the ever-broadening gap between the two girls right from childhood when they fought over toy dolls. Seemingly small issues take grand proportions as the two grow up and are unaware of how a similar event of violence would go on to shape their lives, and even perhaps, reconcile them.

Part two then scratches the reader’s itch and reveals Selasi’s side of the story. From this point on, the novel takes our attention away from the plot to more pertinent issues of sexual violence, multiple truths and how flimsy one’s memory can be.

Patriarchy wins the moment women turn against other women and refuse to stand up for them. Selasi’s account of her life, as it turns out, is not that of academic or financial jealousy, but is a version that places her on the receiving end of class discrimination. It is also a story of betrayal in friendship and how our private lives are constantly informed by broader class categories.

Flawed characters

Medie is not shy to make space for rage when Selasi reveals, in a moment of realisation, breaking away from the idea of a perfect life: “Akorfa’s refusal to see and care about the things that happened to me had become what I disliked most about her. She had nothing to say about how she lounged in bed while I cooked and cleaned; how I had been rejected by my father and now was being punished by her mother. Instead, she wanted to act as if everything was fine, and was happy for me to be her housegirl/ cousin/friend at the same time.”

Akorfa is an extremely flawed character, and yet, she inspires empathy.

When she goes on to study medicine in America, she encounters several truths. People are routinely racist, confuse Ghana with Guyana and stereotype black people out of ignorance. Akorfa complains about her hypervisibility and continually feels like she’s some kind of an exotic species. 

Gender is also taken up obliquely as the prevalent notion of African masculinity — that of a loud, demanding man — is subverted. There are myriad ways to be masculine, as Medie puts it in one of her interviews. Take the case of Akorfa’s mother Lucy, who even after sustained psychological oppression on the part of her in-laws, does not choose to live a different life. Instead, she begins mirroring her oppressors. Even Selasi’s unrestrained sexuality is connected to her exit from a strict familial structure early on in her life. 

Building empathy

It is as if the book grows up as we read, righting its previous wrongs and how! Giving voice to both these women teases out the reader’s empathy for both and also allows us to gain insight into the complexity of life; in the process, it warns us against grand narratives.

Selasi’s struggle against men in power stands as a pertinent example of women salvaging victory in a man’s world and exposes the gaps that need filling. The minister who molests a girl in Selasi’s restaurant is not ousted and punished for his crime but is only held accountable when he speaks ill of another man in power. Although justice is served, the means is a painful reminder of the gender disparity. Nightbloom thus offers an exploration of friendships, family and nation, all of which come with their own imperfections.

Published 19 May 2024, 01:15 IST

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