Razia Parveen reviews the new novel by Abi Dare, which like Jane Eyre champions the marginalised female
This searingly beautiful novel explores the social injustices which run deep in modern Africa. Set in Nigeria, it recounts the story of a 14-year-old girl whose life is blighted by one tragedy after another. Born into a downtrodden family, Adunni narrates a story which initially breaks the reader’s heart – but then revives it through her unquenchable courage.
In many respects The Girl with The Louding Voice (GWTLV) serves as a 21st century re-imagining of the Charlotte Bronte classic, Jane Eyre. There is a striking defiance and a self-belief from a female protagonist which runs through both the novels. Jane says for example:
I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will. (ch.23)
And Adunni says:
I am a somebody of value (p.225)
Both protagonists are young females who reside on the margins of society – Jane is a poor orphan girl and Adunni is a poor black girl. Both are forced to endure disadvantaged childhoods by social forces beyond their control.
Both are also written in the first person by young female narrators. GWTLV writes in a voice which is non-standard English:
This morning, Papa call me inside the parlour.
He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking at me. Papa have way of looking me one kind. As if he wants to be flogging me for no reason, as if I am carrying shit inside my cheeks and when I open mouth, the whole place be smelling of it. (p1)
Jane, in contrast, narrates her story through carefully constructed Standard English:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question. (p.1)
The openings of both novels seem worlds apart in terms of settings, syntax and linguistic pattern. Dare’s novel is devoid of any traditional grammar, whereas Bronte’s complies with every grammatical rule set for standard English. But both begin their narratives with specific childhood experiences – one in early Victorian England, and the other in today’s rural Nigeria.
GWTLV tells the devastating story of a young girl who is sold into marriage so her father can pay the community rent. She chronicles the abuse she suffered as the third wife to an elderly man. When she runs away to a trusted friend, she is sold again as a domestic slave. Her time spent as an unwaged and underage house maid to an abusive and greedy millionaire couple only seems to seal her fate.
However, the kindness of an unknown neighbour provides her with renewed hope for a better future. It is here in the grand house that she begins to read some of the books on the shelves she cleans. Interestingly, as her literacy improves the reading material becomes the beginning of the latter chapters:
Fact: Some of the earliest art sculptures in the world originated from Nigeria. The Bronze Head from Ife, which is one of the most renowned, was taken to the British Museum a year after it was discovered in 1938.
During her time as a housemaid Adunni visits her neighbour’s house, where she sees some artwork on the wall:
Got those paintings from the Nike Art Gallery. It’s an amazing place in Lekki,’ she says, pointing to one of the clay heads. ‘That scarred one is my favourite. It is a painting of the Bronze Head from Ife. A masterpiece. Do you like art?’
‘I read of it in the Book of Nigeria Fact, about how we were letting the British to steel our art,’ I say. ‘Where is the surprise?’ (p.221)
The contentious issue of the British Museum taking works of art from countries colonized by the empire is a long-running one, and explored in detail by many cultural historians including Dan Hicks in The Brutish Museums. By bringing in the information about stolen artefacts, Dare has introduced her readership to what is sometimes known as The Great Cultural Steal. As a colonised nation, Nigeria’s cultural heritage has often disappeared, only for it to be put on display in European museums decades later.
This in turn leads us to Jane Eyre which is also a book about colonialism. It mentions the wealth of Mr. Rochester, built from the plantations of Jamaica, which is further explored in greater depth in the later prequel Wide Sargasso Sea – staple reading on all postcolonial courses. Jean Rhys’ novel gives voice to the marginalized and the protagonist becomes the ‘Other’.
In a sense this also best describes Adunni in relation to Jane Eyre. One can argue that Adunni is Bertha Mason and ‘the mad woman in the attic’ as Adunni, like Bertha Mason, is the ‘other’ to the fair Jane.
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (ch.26)
The image of the now iconic ‘mad woman in the attic’ could serve as a lack of autonomy and freedom leading to mental and emotional trauma. At one point in Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette says to Rochester, “there is always the other side, always”. Dare has weaved this other side into Adunnis’ story almost a century later.
Both Adunni and Jane are avid readers and see the value in reading and the importance in securing an education for girls, particularly poor girls. Jane is ‘caught out’ by her cousin John for reading:
I returned to my book – Berwick’s History of British Birds… with Berwick on my knee, I was then happy … (ch.1)
This is echoed in Adunni’s experience:
I want to be reading everyday, I say, feeling a pitch of happiness as I am remembering what Kite say to me about feeding my mind with reading of books. I bend my neck, trying to read the title name of some of the books:
Things Fall Apart
Collins English Dic-tion-ary
Africa Bible Com-men-ta-ry
A His-tory of Nigeria
1000 Prayer Points to Secure Your Marriage
The Book of Nigerian Facts: from Past to Present, 5th edition 2014
Both our protagonists are dedicated to self-improvement and see reading as a means of emancipation. Furthermore, both female narrators explore the limitations of social class and movement. Jane Eyre tells her reader:
It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it...Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer too much rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (ch.12, p.116)
Jane Eyre can be seen as promoting the kernel of love at its conceptual centre, and GWTLV is also a love story. Both narratives show an indestructible bond to the very real and possible idea of hope. This becomes a mantra that Adunni tells herself when her life becomes unbearable.
In Jane Eyre we have a more traditional love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester, but we also have the empowering self-love that develops within Jane and in GWTLV. The Louding Voice becomes a metaphor for self-determination gained through education in a patriarchal world:
My mam say education will give me a voice. I want more than a voice, Ms. Tia. I want a louding voice (p.224)
At one point Adunni says: I wish I am a man, but I am not, so I do the next thing I can do. I marry a man. Both our heroines have the same spirit in them and believe that education is the best way for them to gain some semblance of freedom.
Within Adunni’s narrative she tells of other stories that she knows, like a Russian doll of words:
Asabi is one girl in Ikati that didn’t want to marry an old man because she was having real love with Tafa, one boy that working in the same Kassim Motors with Born-boy. The day after her wedding, Asabi was running away with Tafa but they didn’t able to run far. They catch Asabi in front of the border and beat her sore. And Tafa? They hang the poor boy like a fowl in the village square and throw his body to the Ikati forest. The village chief say Tafa was stealing another man’s wife. That he must die because in Ikati, all thiefs must suffer and die. The village chief say they must lock Asabi in a room for a hundred and three days until she is learning to sit in her husband’s house and not running away.
But Asabi didn’t learn anything. After a hundred and three days of being locked in a room, Asabi says she is no more coming outside. So she stays in that room till this day, looking the walls, plucking hair from her head and eating it, pinching her eyelashes and hiding it inside her brassiere, talking to herself and the spirit of Tafa. (p.12)
As well as the horrific violence that Adunni endures, she also tells us of the gender inequality that runs through the heart of Nigerian rural life. Female powerlessness and the strength of patriarchy are forces both Adunni and Jane must contend with which recur through both novels. Jane Eyre has become a touchstone of feminist literature and for giving a voice to the oppressed female. Adunni’s tale in GWTLV equally deserves to become a beacon of hope for young black girls, and should be taken up by the Black Lives Matter generation:
What, you only see white people when you see the news?’ She forced a quiet laugh. ‘That’s not – I mean there are a lot of black people on TV in England an in – actually,’ she sigh, low her voice, make it somehow sad, ‘you have a point. There aren’t enough black people anchoring the news . . . or in parliament . . . or in top positions. Not enough. (p.185)
I walked about the chamber most of the time. I imagined myself only to be regretting my loss, and thinking how to repair it; but when my reflections were concluded, and I looked up and found that the afternoon was gone, and evening far advanced, another discovery dawn to me, namely, that in the interval I had undergone a transforming process; that my mind had put off all it had borrowed of Miss Temple – or rather that she had taken with her the serene atmosphere I had been breathing in her vicinity – and that now I was left in my natural element, and beginning to feel the stirring of old emotions. It did not seem as if a prop were withdrawn, but rather as if a motive were gone it was not the power to be tranquil which had failed me, but the reason for tranquility was no more. My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils. (p.89)
Village life in rural Nigeria and life in at Lowood both have strict archaic and brutal rules and regimes to be adhered to.
One of the many complexities that Jane Eyre shares with GWTLV is the idea of having a sense of self-worth. Young Jane says:
to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest. (Ch. 8)
In a similar vein Adunni has a strong sense of self – respect running throughout the novel:
I am not wasted waste; I am Adunni. A person important enough because my tomorrow will be better than today.
Adunni’s defiance resonates with Jane’s self-belief. This stance shines throughout the novel and allows the reader to take solace from their transcendence. It creates a powerful message which champions the marginalised female beyond the reins of patriarchy.