Review: The Bead Collector – Sefi Atta

One of the many things I love about fiction is its ability to show you somewhere you have never been before, somewhere you know nothing about. That is exactly what The Bead Collector, by Sefi Atta did for me. I knew very little about Nigeria before reading this book, but this book gave me a glimpse into the layers, traditions and cultures of this complex society.

It is January 1976 in Lagos, Nigeria, and our narrator Remi Lawal, meets American expatriate Frances Cooke at an art exhibition. Frances is American art dealer, who tells Remi she is in Nigeria to buy rare beads. Remi’s husband, Tunde, who was recently retired from the Ministry of Finance, suspects Frances of gathering intelligence for the CIA. Although he suspects it for no other reason than she is an American expatriate in Nigeria, this small seed of doubt begins to grow in Remi’s mind, as well as the reader’s.

The two women quickly become friends and Remi takes Frances under her wing, introducing her to new people and showing her round the Ikoyi neighbourhood. We as readers are taken on the same induction, and Remi was the perfect narrator to show us inside upper-class society in Nigeria. Remi and Tunde hold a prominent position in their society – they are married, with two children, Remi has just started her own business selling greeting cards and invitations and Tunde has (until recently) worked for the government. They are therefore pretty well connected and know many of the other couples in the community.

From this vantage point, the watchful Remi knows much of what is going on behind closed doors. There is a gossipy feel to her stories about this or that couple: the people who come into her shop, who she meets at functions and the club and introduces Frances to. Through this network of characters, all with different backgrounds, marriages, attitudes, religions, Nigeria is brought to life in all its myriad of histories and cultures.

Different cultures and perspectives also meet when Remi and Frances begin to confide in each other. Many of the chapters end with snippets of their conversations, where we hear short back and forth views on a whole host of meaty topics – colonialism, gender, patriotism. If it weren’t for these sections, I think I’d feel that I hadn’t got to know Remi very well at all – her narration is mainly focused on those around her rather than herself. These deep, frank conversations with Frances gave me a window into Remi’s mind, in the way that conversations between female friends so often can.

There is a prominent political backdrop to the novel, which begins just after the January coup of 1976. As I know so little of the history of Nigeria, at times I struggled to keep up, so I felt I very much suffered from my own ignorance here. But it was also something I loved most about the novel – I really appreciated the opportunity to learn more. So I kept flicking back to make sure I had understood, opened up loads of tabs on the internet and got stuck in.

The Bead Collector is highly recommended for anyone who’d like to gain a better understanding and appreciation of Nigeria’s deeply layered histories and cultures. It was recently been selected for the Not the Booker prize longlist – definitely worth checking out this book and the other great books on that list!

The Bead Collector is out now with Myriad Press. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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