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Review: Wahala by Nikki May: a melancholic hymn to Nigeria and faulty friendship

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    In Nigeria, much of Western Africa and throughout the African diaspora, everyone knows what you mean when you lament all the “wahala”. Nigerian pidgin that translates as “trouble”, it might even be paired with the classic refrain: “See me, see trouble”. With both phrases emblazoned across the front of Nikki May’s debut, the novel could spell only drama and chaos.

    We follow the lives of three best friends in their thirties living in London. Ronke, Simi and Boo are all black women of mixed Nigerian and English heritage. They also share looming question marks over what the future holds.

    Traditional Ronke is after “The One”, but the Nigerian men she dates remain unserious. Motherhood and being a wife are crosses Boo is struggling to bear. And career-driven Simi could do without the bitchy boss and a husband who desperately wants to expand their family of two.

    Their friendship is disrupted when Isobel, an old friend and glamorous socialite straight out of Lagos’s affluent neighbourhood of Ikoyi, lands in London. She is a coy charmer used to turning heads – but cracks begin to show in the three friends’ relationship upon her arrival.

    May’s priority is not making her characters likeable, but rather interrogating the dynamics that emerge in groups when people find themselves tugging in different directions.

    The wants, needs and ambitions of Ronke, Boo and Simi are recognisable and relatable, while their partners are simply props. It certainly works, if you read it as a nod to how all three women are seeking to fill the space left by missing or absent fathers – but at the same time leaves the arcs of Boo and Simi’s white husbands, Martin and Didier, and Ronke’s boyfriend, Kayode, somewhat unfinished.

    ‘Wahala’ by Nikki May is an energetic and entertaining look at flawed friendships that doesn’t completely deliver

    May’s skill for weaving together entertaining personal problems with a wistfulness for Nigerian food, customs and culture is unparalleled. Raised
    in Lagos before moving to London, she has knowledge and nostalgia that leap off the page. Whether you’ve been to Lagos more times than you can count, just the once or never, you’ll find yourself spirited away to the comforts of decadent Ikoyi Club for Nigeria’s elite, or one of the best “mama puts” (roadside restaurants) in the city, inhaling moin moin, jollof rice and an array of barbecued meats.

    However, as evocative as her writing is, it cannot mask that Wahala doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the prologue. The ending feels hurried compared with the rest of the book, scuppering the explanations and revelations we’ve been chasing. Elsewhere, while we are offered a glimpse of the stark class divide that rules over Nigeria, commentary on colourism is minimal at best.

    Even so, Wahala is hard to put down – an energetic, entertaining interrogation of fundamentally flawed friendship and how uncomfortable emotions such as jealousy and bitterness are not always easy to confront, yielding trouble indeed.

    Wahala, by Nikki May, is published by Doubleday at £14.99


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