Debut author Albert recalls her brief time in Nigeria as the only child of a father who was lured to British colonial Africa and a mother who reluctantly went along for the ride.
Like so many tales of misadventure, this one begins at the end; it’s a stock technique, but it works for this sentimental, thoughtful memoir. In March 1953, after spending the night in a Kano, Nigeria, jail, Albert’s father secured his release despite his debtor’s wishes—just in time to get himself, his wife, Josie, and their 10-year-old daughter (the author) on the first flight to London. Two years before, Albert’s father, disillusioned by his career in law, decided to uproot the family from their cozy existence in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, and become an exporter of lead ore. From the outset, Albert deftly illustrates her portrait of her father as a restless, self-serving man who was convinced that exporting ore from Nigeria would fulfill his greatest desire: to become a wealthy man. On the way to Africa, Albert’s parents casually dumped her off at an English boarding school, not unlike the one that George Orwell wrote about in his autobiographical essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Albert would hear little from her parents, and it wasn’t until five months later that they brought her to Nigeria. The author reconstructs the family’s remaining year and a half there, most of it spent in the city of Jos, using letters between her mother and aunt, and her father and uncle. Each one is rich with details of the family’s daily life in the city; Albert’s father’s calamitous trade and mining negotiations with European-weary village chiefs; and both parents’ emotional struggles with expatriate existence and ultimate financial failure. Yet Albert also infuses the narrative with a deep love and admiration for her parents, which results in deliciously complex portraits. The book could have done without a handful of vague references to “Africans” instead of “Nigerians,” but for the most part, Albert remains vigilant regarding the fraught social atmosphere of colonial Africa.
A vivid, honest portrait of an imperfect but intrepid mid-20th-century American family.