A Nigerian boy struggles to survive in a violent, disintegrating world.
Like the most famous coming-of-age-in-hell story of all, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Nigerian lawyer and political commentator John’s debut novel makes an old nightmare new by placing a bright, articulate, curious, and endearing young narrator in the midst of it. Dantala Ahmad—his name means “born on a Tuesday”—struggles to learn how the world works, to understand friendship, love, and sex, and to pursue his drive for knowledge and self-expression while living in the thick of wholesale mayhem and death. (Though this is a novel, the acknowledgments explain that the character was inspired by a real person “who will probably never read this book.”) Dantala is an almajiri—an Arabic word used in Nigeria for a child who has left his home to study Islam—who gives an account of his life from 2003 to 2010. The opening finds him smoking “wee-wee” with a gang of street kids under a tree—he's been hanging out with them for about two years, since he finished his Quranic training and didn’t have the fare for the bus home to his village. Paid to cause trouble during an election, some of the boys are murdered; others scatter. Dantala ends up at a mosque run by a kind, peace-loving imam named Sheikh Jamal. Sheikh recognizes Dantala’s intelligence and good nature and makes him a key assistant, managing funds, singing the call to prayer, studying computer skills and English. Some of the most touching, Anne Frank–like portions of the novel are excerpts of a notebook in which Dantala meditates on new vocabulary words like PATRON, GIBBERISH, OBSESS, and WHY, including his thoughts on everything from the bizarre confusions of Islamic sectarianism to his emerging sexuality and burning crush on Sheikh’s daughter. As further political conflict erupts, Dantala must battle insanity, ignorance, and brutality in his attempt to find a place in the world.
An action-packed, heartbreaking, and eye-opening debut from a great new talent.