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Wahala

Review

Wahala

Nikki May’s debut, WAHALA, is a sharply observed novel of female friendship, womanhood and betrayal featuring a glittering cast of Anglo-Nigerian women trying to have it all.

Ronke, Simi and Boo have been friends for ages after meeting at the University of Bristol. Now in their 30s, they share a comfortable, intimate bond: they are all brown British women of mixed backgrounds and share significant family trauma. Most importantly, they show up for one another when they are needed, never judging…at least not openly. When we meet them, each is at a crossroads in her life. Ronke is desperate to find “the one” and thinks she has done just that with Kayode, though her friends refuse to let her forget her bad history with men. Simi has the perfect life working in fashion merchandising, but is feeling smothered by her perfect husband’s desire for children. Boo has a kind, dreamy husband and precocious daughter, but is feeling underappreciated and overwhelmed in her suburban life.

"Both a celebration of female friendship and a surprisingly clear-eyed examination of ambition, culture and the roles of women, WAHALA is an exciting and lively debut from a sharp new voice, perfect for readers of Liane Moriarty and Joshilyn Jackson."

Each woman is desperate to find her “real” self, the one who wears the right clothes, says the right thing and is always within five pounds of her desired weight. But the trio is far from shallow. Amid complimenting outfits, sharing drinks and comparing fitness attempts, they are deeply involved in one another’s family lives, are open and honest about life as a “mixed race” woman, and have a deep but complicated love of their Nigerian culture.

Enter Isobel. Outlandish, stylish and armed with a seemingly bottomless spending account, Isobel was Simi’s childhood best friend, though the two were torn apart by an argument between their fathers. Now divorced, she has found Simi on Facebook and rekindled their friendship, quickly immersing (or at least trying to immerse) herself in Simi’s close-knit group. Isobel is always ready to splurge for dinner (and expensive champagne!), knows just what to say about someone’s negligent partner or demeaning boss, and adds a fresh new vibrance to the women’s lives. But as careful readers will quickly see, there’s something just a bit off about Isobel. Her “always knows what to say” perfection has a hidden ability to skewer bonds, twist words and upend the women’s comfort with themselves and with one another. But how long will it take Ronke, Simi and Boo to catch on?

Without information-dumping or weighing down her narrative with over-the-top explanations of backstories or inside jokes, Nikki May makes you feel like the fourth beloved member of this lively, tight group. Though they tease her endlessly about her romantic history, Simi and Boo clearly adore Ronke, her ability to love and her willingness to show up for their families as she longs for her own. Simi, the “vain” one, showers her friends with pricey gifts and praises their careers as a dentist and a research scientist, even though she is self-conscious about her decision to drop out of college. And Boo, though occasionally jealous of her friends and their freedom, is as generous with her household as the others are with their love. Her daughter’s love for her “aunts” makes clear the time and energy each has invested in one another.

Although they are close, it is not long before Isobel manages to dismantle their relationships. As May expertly unpacks the deepest insecurities and fears of each woman, Isobel seems to work in tandem to find and target them. Always the best dressed, she is possessed with an innate ability to make whomever she is speaking with feel like the center of her world. After a lifetime of working, communicating and swapping stories as a trio, it is possible that the women, or at least Simi and Boo, relish this laser focus. Ronke is slower to trust Isobel, but with each withholding some information about her life, Isobel’s nonjudgmental, celebrating response feels like just the thing these ladies need to thrive. Before long, though, they are holding more secrets than truths, and Isobel has become the sole secret keeper.

What makes WAHALA (Nigerian for “trouble”...and boy, is there plenty of it here) so terrific is the universally recognizable struggles and friendships between Ronke, Simi and Boo, which May then dresses and styles with unique, expertly drawn details that make them feel fresh and original. The result is a keen, sharp and witty investigation of the theme of comparison. If I am happy and my best friend is happy, why does our happiness look so different? Do I want what she has, or is it possible to want different things and still champion one another? Add to that the vibrant, messy and gorgeously portrayed cultural identities of the women and the hilarious quips and glamorous fashion choices between them, and you have an exquisite look into the inner lives of women.

Both a celebration of female friendship and a surprisingly clear-eyed examination of ambition, culture and the roles of women, WAHALA is an exciting and lively debut from a sharp new voice, perfect for readers of Liane Moriarty and Joshilyn Jackson.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 21, 2022

Wahala
by Nikki May

  • Publication Date: January 11, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Custom House
  • ISBN-10: 0063084244
  • ISBN-13: 9780063084247