A delicate, emotional and beautiful debut novel with powerful commentary on sexuality, gender, religion, love and African mysticism.
An Ordinary Wonder by Nigerian writer Buki Papillon is more than an ordinary book.
Set in Ibadan, Nigeria, this story is narrated by the protagonist Otolorin – who is an intersex twin. The book focuses on her younger teenage years and explains her unfortunate life where, although she knows she is a girl, she is forced to live as a boy.
Living with an abusive mother, an absent father, and a wonderful sister who loves her but is conflicted by Oto’s insistence that she is a girl – 13-year-old Oto is in a long fight to be who she believes she truly is.
From beatings at home, to torture filled exorcisms at his mother’s cultish church, the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire, Oto eventually decides to go to a prestigious boarding school where she is accepted because of her outstanding school marks.
There she builds a lifelong friendship with her roommate, Derin but is also subjected to constant bullying and eventually an attempted rape. This starts Oto’s trouble at her boarding school as cannot report the attempt without having to reveal that she is in fact intersex.
This book is triggering. The terrible issues the protagonist had to face can be hard to process and believe at times but being African albeit not Nigerian – I have seen a reality where these things can happen. Where lack of knowledge and overly zealous religious beliefs can lead to shocking acts of violence.
What I enjoyed the most had to be the African folklore and the Yoruba proverbs that drove the story and became the protagonist’s strength.
Many authors rely on realism and tragedy to drive the story until the end but what I appreciated about Buki Papillion’s storytelling was the silver lining at the end. At every turn it seemed Otolorin had invisible forces directing his life in the right path and placing the right people in her life to help her along the way.
That brought a soothing to the heartbreak this story put me through, and the ending felt just right.
If you want to learn about what it means to be intersex in the physical sense, a google search would probably be more helpful than this novel.
However, if you want to read a coming of age story about how it feels to be forced to live as someone you’re not, to be ostracized because you’re different and finally learn self-acceptance, true self-love and rebirth, this book is one you won’t be able to put down.