Toward the end of her stunning debut novel, Christie Watson writes, “Burned-out engines line up, with flowers growing inside of them. Beauty found a way to grow in the ugliest of places.” Not just a description of battle-ravaged Nigeria, this passage also describes the novel, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away. Watson has found a way to put corruption, poverty, youth militia and even genital mutilation into a great story, told wonderfully by twelve year-old Blessing.
I don’t mean to imply that the novel’s content and story are not harrowing. Indeed, what Blessing has to live through seems almost impossible. But she is so open and honest, that we can never give up on her or on the book. Watson does an excellent job of setting the scene, giving me a real sense of Blessing’s world.
“The air smelled like a book unopened for a very long time, and smokey, as though the ground had been on fire.”
Blessing is not wise beyond her years, which allows readers to learn about her Nigerian world and culture along with her. I felt I knew Blessing deep in her soul, recognizing the way she looks at the world.
“I tried to close my imagination, but it stayed open like a book that has been read too often.”
Blessing does have a natural gift for midwifery, a choice that keeps the plot moving forward as well as extending the metaphor for her coming into her own life. It’s a gift that bonds her to her grandmother, a critical element to the choices she will have to make.
Opening this book without much previous knowledge about Nigeria, I learned a great deal about government corruption, American influence and even the youth militias. I was heartbroken, along with Blessing, when her brother Ezekiel’s promise as a physician is thwarted by circumstance and neglect. We come to understand why the violent militia holds appeal to young men without many other options.
Best of all, Watson does not try to provide simple questions or solutions. Like in life, her characters are flawed and multi-dimensional. None are all good or all bad. Choices must be made. Priorities change. Despite the novel’s foreign locale and life-or-death scenarios, the story spoke to me on a personal level. Quite an achievement for this author’s first time out.