A Review of Umar Turaki’s “Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold”
If you thought that the only way you could get published through Amazon was through self-publishing means, think again. You may not (or may) be aware of this, but Amazon does publish books, too. They have a publishing concern, Little A, that takes agented books, so — in theory — you’re getting the same kind of quality fiction you would get through one of the other major publishers out there. Little A is no hybrid publisher putting out dubious books. Thus, it is with some sadness that I must admit that Nigerian writer Umar Turaki’s forthcoming book, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold, is lacklustre. While it has a brilliant premise — a COVID-like virus attacks a small town and only children are immune — it bakes it under a wealth of literary pretension, making it hard to read and is (surprising for a book with its share of violence) acutely boring as heck, as well. It hurts me to say that because any time a person of colour gets a book published, it’s like a small victory against white privilege. We need more books written by Black and brown people. However, I do caution against publishing books from marginalized communities of writers for the sake of it — ideally, if you’re going to release a book, it had better be good.
The problems with Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold are multiple. It takes a while for the reader to realize that the book is set somewhere in Africa, as the novel otherwise has a fairy tale quality to it. While most of the action takes place in a village called Pilam (of which the main characters seek to escape at the outset), the surrounding villages also have the letter “P” starting their names, which can be a tad bit confusing to keep track of. On a similar bent, the novel is stuffed to the gills with characters — so much so that it can be hard to tell them apart, especially as a number of these characters are narrators of the story from a third-person point of view. While I understand that the bevy of characters is meant to buoy the novel’s conclusion — that it takes a village or a community to survive a pandemic, this ultimately only makes the novel hard to read. Similarly, the novel does a lot of jumping backward and forwards through time, so you’ll encounter the same scene from a different character’s POV, too, in another chapter, which just only adds to the confusion.
Essentially, the big takeaway I had with this novel is that it was so poorly written that the main point of the book didn’t feel coherent. As each chapter is seen through the lens of a different character, the novel feels as though it is a strung-together collection of short stories, some of which are more interesting than others. Overall, though, Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold is one big cure for insomnia. For a book about a pandemic, this is incredibly snooze-inducing stuff. For instance, we’re told that soldiers have formed around the periphery of the village — but they’re nowhere to be seen in the novel at all! The pandemic has also raged for a couple of years before the book’s beginning, but we get no sense of the pathology of the disease (called the Grey in the novel) and why it is only limited itself to striking one small village in the world. Instead of these descriptions, we get a kind of character study — which is where the zzz’s come into play because, truthfully, a lot of these characters aren’t interesting. There is one character who is a child and is prone to violence, and I wish that the author had focused more of the tale on him because this is the sole instance where one could feel that Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold was going somewhere.
The one saving grace for this novel is that — at about 240-ish pages — it is relatively short. However, the book just becomes less and less interesting as it progresses, even as the sense of communal belonging between the characters increases. Finally, the book just ends. There’s no explanation for how it ends the way it does (I’m avoiding saying very much not to spoil things for those who might want to still read this novel after I’m done here), and, once again, there’s no sense of world-building or explaining why things are the way they are. I understand that this might be more of a magical realist sort of book, but it might have been a more captivating tale if the reader had more of an idea of what was going on and why it was going on. I hope I’m not being unfair and reducing Turaki’s book to a “single story”-type narrative that fellow Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described in a famous TED talk. Perhaps the book is written the way it is written because this lack of detail is, in fact, part of a larger story about things just being the way they are in continental Africa after colonialism. However, I don’t think there’s enough substance in this tale for this to be even considered as something the author was shooting for.
In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold. Parts of it were mildly absorbing and I did think that the idea behind the book sounded interesting enough. However, there’s simply just not enough payoff. I’m disappointed by this because I love it when authors of colour can break through and try to enrich my reading experience. (I’ve recently ruminated to myself that my experience of the “exotic” growing up was probably limited to Little House on the Prairie books.) I’m always hopeful that I can both broaden my reading experience and have something to enjoy at the same time. But, at the end of the day, Such a Beautiful thing to Behold was sorely lacking. There’s not much of a captivating tale beyond the introduction and, ultimately, I’d have to say skip it. It’s too bad because it’s always good to support persons of colour in their literary endeavours, but, also, I was hoping to support a publisher that was new to me as well. I suppose I’ll just have to wait until the next book from either party to have a more fulsome picture of their respective places in the broader literary community. Until then, we’re left with something pretty ugly, and it pains me to say that.
Umar Turaki’s Such a Beautiful Thing to Behold will be published by Little A on May 1, 2022.
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