Losing it!

Posted on August 25, 2014


librevilleIf a donkey kicks you and you kick back, you are both donkeys. Gambian proverb

I’ve chosen this proverb not because it illuminates anything about Dayo Forster’s Reading the Ceiling, but because it seems particularly apt in the current political climate. And there I will leave that thought except to say that I would alter that second ‘donkey’ to ‘ass’.

Back to Forster…

Reading the Ceiling is a refreshing read.   Refreshing in that it’s a novel that deals with all the stuff that novels deal with when they’re not concerned with politics. It deals with being a teenager. It deals with losing one’s virginity. It deals with those decisions we make at 18 when we’re convinced we can predict the outcome. Those decisions that change the course of our lives in random and incalculable ways. Those decisions that laugh in the face of the arrogant certitude of an 18-year-old self.


The novel describes the life (of lives as I’ll explain) of 18-year-old Ayodele.  Ayodele, who is on the cusp of university and leaving home, decides to lose her virginity. What she doesn’t realise is that the choice of who she loses it to will determine the future course of her life. Here, Forster offers us three potential lovers and three potential futures for Ayodele. Story One: Reuben, Story Two: Yuan, Story Three: The Un-named.   Each story works well in its own right, but Forster also traces unifying themes across the triptych. For instance, each considers the way in which modern Gambian women have agency in their lives. Each considers the ways in which families react to each other’s choices, accepting or shunning depending upon one’s willingness to conform. Each considers the ways in which Ayodele, outside race, gender, familial expectations, or im/maturity, deals with the challenges thrown up by these differently imagined lives.   In so doing, the novel examines those character traits that stay with us regardless of our choices, and puts to the question the ‘nature v nurture’ debate, without ever having to answer that old saw.


Reading the Ceiling is an easy book to read and an easy book to like.   Forster’s style is simple – not too much showing without telling (all that showing so belovéd of creative writing classes can become a bore).   It’s also incredible accessible (and here I’m hoping I don’t sound like the worst kind of global northerner) in that Ayodele could be any teenager, in any wealthy city in the world who sulks in their bed room looking at the ceiling and dreaming of a life away from annoying parents and siblings. And yet, there is an ever-present Gambian voice too. To ventriloquize Ayodele, Forster’s writing is ‘like adding ranha to a large bowl of benachin – you can do without it, but it adds flavour to the experience of eating.’