Review: Wahala, by Nikki May
Bit of a weird one, this - I really liked parts of it but the overall structure was just messy enough to stop it from being uncomplicatedly good.
This is the story of a group of three half-Nigerian, half-English best friend thirtysomethings (Boo, Simi and Ronke) living in London and navigating the joint complications of being women, being mixed-race, being in complicated relationships and being in their thirties in a somewhat unforgiving London. A friend from Simi's childhood, Isobel, reappears somewhat unexpectedly and integrates the trio; things start spiralling out of control from there. It turns into a psychological thriller of how Isobel manipulates the women's insecurities and blind spots in the friendship to turn them against each other and torpedo their relationships.
I noticed and appreciated the way Nikki May wrote a book about mixed-race women living in England and didn't make institutional racism the central conflict of her book. It allowed a story about Black women to be about the women themselves, rather than making it a book about race and critiquing racism (as a white woman, and therefore someone not best placed to pass judgment on this type of writing choice, I understood this as a deliberate authorial choice to make her book about characters purely about those characters, rather than wanting to bring in societal ills and unnecessarily broadening the scope of her narrative, but someone who knows better is more than welcome to correct me if I'm wrong). I also liked how she really leaned into making her characters such complex, flawed people - although I do think that nuance got lost when she was crafting Isobel, as Isobel really does read like a straight-through villain with absolutely nothing to soften her edges or make her character a bit more psychologically shaded. And I think she also goes too far in the character of Boo, who I believe we're supposed to feel sympathy for but is actually just such a horrible cow to everyone around her, jumps straight to being awful with very minimal prodding from the evil Isobel, that it was impossible to sympathise with her and her issues. If was just plain detestable and I think I would have appreciated her character arc more if she had actually lost something, or faced any kind of consequences for her actions and choices.
My biggest issue with this novel ended up being the pacing. The build-up to the climax took about 350 pages; the climax and the dénouement, including the villain's monologue about her motives, was all crammed into 15 pages; and then the resolution was a one-page epilogue that didn't do nearly enough to explore the way the novel's main event impacted our protagonists. It's like May set out to write a slow burn, decided at the last minute she wanted a thriller so wrote a climax, with the genre-required villain monologue in which she explains her (understandable, but much less understandable that none of the three protagonists noticed that she was a complete psycho and none of them knew anything about their in-common backstory???) motivations that did not make sense in the context of everything she'd already built, and then plonked in the most ambiguous ending we could have with all the ground already covered. And it really is such a shame that the pacing was so patchy, because if it had just been a bit more reliable of a narrative arc I probably would have loved this book.
It's important at this point to flag that this is Nikki May's debut novel and she'll probably get better at the pacing thing as she keeps writing, and the raw materials of the characters and the story here are good enough that I see myself picking up whatever it is she writes next.