Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

Disclaimer: Other Press provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, is a compelling book for the way its narrator, Blessing, approaches her world of the Niger delta in all its complexities. Watson opens the book with the dissolution of Blessing’s parents’ marriage, and with the move of Blessing, her brother Ezikiel, and their mother to their grandparents’ compound. Blessing’s move is from one type of compound to another – from a secure upper-class apartment complex to the rural home of her grandfather, where there is no running water and the family must bathe in a stream. Probably the greatest strength of Watson’s book is that she never steps outside the voice of her twelve-year-old narrator. Things that older narrators would have questioned, such as Blessing’s sudden and forced shift from Christianity to Islam when her family moves to her grandfather’s compound, are here taken in stride, nothing more than another inexplicable element in a world impossible to understand.

Blessing is unique, too, for not having aspirations to leave her country, her economic class, or even her grandparents’ home (once she gets used to living without power or running water). It’s rare to see a character who is so fully-formed yet doesn’t aspire to “better” herself in an acceptable, Westernized fashion; in fact, one of the miseries of Blessing’s life is her attendance at school, and when her family loses the money to pay her school fees and she is forced to stay home, her relief is palpable. Watson’s decision to show a character who doesn’t want to attend school, doesn’t want to “better” herself, is a brave one, and rather than giving us another too-typical example of a girl without options finding options through a Western-style education, Watson shows us one who embraces her family and her roots. Whatever the reader’s opinion on Blessing’s decision may be, Watson is able to convince us that her decision to refuse to return to school when her mother’s white boyfriend provides the money for her school fees, is the correct one for her. Blessing, who instead of attending school trains at her grandmother’s side to become a midwife, takes a joy in her work that she never did in school, and there is something empowering in following this twelve-year-old girl as she learns to deliver babies first with her grandmother’s help, then without. Though Blessing’s choices at times read as painfully constrained, when she at last has the option to leave her new home, to take on the more Westernized life that her mother idealizes, she rejects her choice, and it becomes clear the degree to which her decision to cease her formal education, to follow her grandmother’s path, is the correct one for her.

Though Blessing’s mother, Timi, never reads as complete a character as Blessing, she too is a unique character for being a mother who does not want to be a mother, for being a woman whose love for her children doesn’t fit within the confines of traditionally defined motherhood. Watson’s successes with Tiny Sunbirds is not so much with the prose, which is never able to transcend the voice of its twelve-year-old narrator (nor should it), but with her approach to characters who take on roles with elements of the repellant to them. There’s Blessing’s brother, Ezikiel, whose anger over his father’s abandonment of the family leads him to abandon his schooling in what seems a less self-empowered fashion than Blessing’s earlier exit from school; Alhaji, Blessing’s grandfather, who for most of the novel reads as a failed man, one whose ambitions will always outstrip his talents; Blessing’s grandmother, who in her role as midwife practices genital mutilation; and Celestine, the second wife of Alhaji, a young woman whose level of self-awareness is shockingly low. All these characters, though, redeem themselves in one way or another by novel’s close, and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop and form themselves through Sunbird‘s pages.

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, is a fast 400 pages, a novel that manages to be at once complex and a perfect pool-side read. Watson’s characters – their motivations, their choices, their relations to one another – aren’t ones that you will forget soon, and though the novel is whole in and of itself, the lives of these characters don’t end when you turn the last page.

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The cover alone gets my excited about the book and after reading your review it sounds like it’s worth a read.

Comment by Brenna

I’m turning out to have sort of a thing with Other Press’s covers. What made me request a review copy of Galore was its cover…same here. They do such a good job with the design.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Beautiful review. The name Blessing, as well as the subject matter, reminds me of a Toni Morrison novel. Did you detect any similarities to Morrison’s work?
I just spent a pleasant half-hour reading your blog. Your post about experiencing culture shock in a US grocery store struck a chord with me. After living in England and France for 3 years, the grocery store is still the one place where I continue to experience the greatest cultural discomfort. What is this high fructose corn syrup? Why are local peaches more expensive that peaches from Portugal? Why is there a whole row of bagged bread and not a single loaf that’s been baked fresh today?

Comment by Erin

Hi Erin – thanks for visiting! I got pretty worked up over the question of “seasonal fruit” in the grocery store – checking where everything came from, asking my parents, “But what’s REALLY in season?” I’m still confused that I was able to buy (good) apples in July, by the idea that you can ship fruit from the west coast or another country over to a region where it’s not in season. apart from bananas, everything i buy in macedonia is in season, here, and while it’s frustrating to have nothing but potatoes and onions all winter long i guess i’ve gotten used to it.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Morrison, but Sunbirds doesn’t strike me as having anything in common, stylistically, with her work. Some of the subject matter overlaps, but Watson’s style is much simpler than is Morrison’s. Very readable, but kind of “what you read is what you get.” It works well with Blessing’s voice, but is pretty far from Morrison’s.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] – Super Sad True Love Story (07/15/11) Karen Russell – Swamplandia! (07/11/11) Christie Watson – Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (07/07/11) Olivia Manning – Friends and Heroes (06/27/11) Olivia Manning – The Spoilt […]

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