Much of my work centers on evaluating the impact of international development interventions. We’re always searching for what we call a “counterfactual,” or what would have happened to the beneficiaries of an intervention if they hadn’t received it. Sometimes, fiction writers create speculative counterfactuals of their own, as in Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel Homegoing, in which two half-sisters on the coast of Africa are separated as children and exposed to wildly different circumstances which affect many generations.
Reading the Ceiling, a novel by Gambian-born and raised author Dayo Forster, takes a different approach: In the opening of the novel, Ayodele is turning 18 in her home country of the Gambia, and she has “decided to do The Deed” — in other words, have sex for the first time. She considers three candidates: a school friend that she admires, the father of her best friend, and another classmate who clearly likes her and so serves as a “fall-back.” After just a few pages, she chooses her fall-back option and we watch how her life plays out, well into middle age. But at that point, we jump back in time and watch Ayodele choose her other school friend, and we see how her life plays out in that scenario. Finally, we see what happens when she chooses her best friend’s father. (It’s Sliding Doors — or a deeply elaborate Choose Your Own Adventure novel for a Gambian schoolgirl.) Despite the fact that relationships for 18-year-olds usually aren’t forever, her choice has dramatic implications and illustrates how unpredictable consequences can be, especially as they play out over the course of a life.
As a bonus for me (an economist), in one of the storylines Ayodele dates an econometrics professor who jokes “about correlating distance to the border with the number of nine-inch mortal holes you could find, and how it would make a perfect example of causality.” (Instrumental variables in fiction! I love it!) Another character brings up deworming: “It’s very hard to sit around debating the concept of joy if you are racked with worms.” There’s a “dandruffed member of the Economics Department” named Engelbert Druthers, and Ayodele struggles in her statistics class: “Any luck with the chi-squareds and ANOVAs?” Oh, and in one timeline, she has to deal with “nosy bureaucrats from the World Bank.” At one point in my career, I was a nosy bureaucrat from the World Bank working in the Gambia! (I’m basically in the book.) If this isn’t your thing, don’t worry: It takes up little of the book. But it was a treat for me.
In a lovely analysis that compares three books that explore alternative choices, Melissa McClements wrote in the Financial Times that “Forster has written a thought-provoking series of narratives that place nearly as much emphasis on education and career in women’s lives as they do on love.”
Here are a few more passages I enjoyed:
On polygamy: “There must be something to be said for a husband who, to be fair, has to spend half his nights with his other wife.’ I make a joke of it. ‘After all, I’ll get some time in my head that I can keep for myself.’”
On faith: “The texture of my faith has changed. I no longer expect everything of it… Yet I find I still believe.”
On commitment: “The moral of the story is, if you want something, don’t halfwant it. Either want it properly and go and get it, or forget about it so you will not be drawn into someone else’s magic and get the decision taken out of your hands.”
(As a bit of service journalism, the ebook costs just $0.99 on Amazon in the U.S., so expect major consumer surplus.)
This is book #40 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.