A young Nigerian breaks out of poverty through professional soccer in this pulpy coming-of-age novel.
Rape, murder and political corruption are part of everyday life for Tito, a sharp-witted teenager living in Onitsha, Nigeria. His ne’er-do-well brother, Elo, was gunned down by police, his mother is deathly ill and his pregnant sister, Kosi, is still missing years after a fight with their father, the town drunk. Such strife contrasts sharply with the First World lifestyle afforded Tito’s rich, connected relatives, the Kafaras. They live in a walled-off mansion and send their sons to private schools in Europe. Cruel economic divisions govern every aspect of life in Onitsha—as Ikpeazu sees it, “money was not just the stuff of life but the whole reason for it and the means of ‘making it’ knew no bounds.” Tito faces his financial reality with his puppy-dog affection for Ona, a dream girl who’s clearly more allured by free-spending local hoods. The bleak outlook is leavened by Ikpeazu’s natural talent as a yarn-spinner with mordant humor. When Tito travels to Lagos to find his wayward sister, Ikpeazu provides a colorful guide to the “food chain” of prostitution in the bustling port city, where every “ruddy-nosed, bleary-eyed white man … felt not just like a king, but the entire International Monetary Fund.” Since much of the novel’s vitality comes from Ikpeazu’s cutting observations of Nigerian life, it’s not surprising that the book slackens when Tito is whisked away, improbably, to England with a spot on the Saxon Valley soccer team. From there, the book shifts into a standard sports tale chronicling Tito’s rapid transformation into a soccer star. Luckily, Tito’s intercontinental culture shock keeps the novel’s original pulse from fading despite the repetitive play-by-play of the underdog team’s rise to fame.
Vibrant realism and sharp social commentary win in this noteworthy rags-to-soccer-riches story.