This ticks all the boxes of a literary blockbuster. It’s a debut novel by a promising Nigerian writer and Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship recipient. It comes with a dreamy publication backstory involving an eight-way auction, pre-empt deals, meaty advances and praises galore. The book features a voice that is upbeat, familiar, catchy and breezy as a pop song:
Dear White People,
I love white girls. Especially blondes. Blondes who wear their hair in ponytails and once a week in pigtails. Is this a fetish?
A Black boy in love with white girls. If you don’t think about it too much, it’s amusing, especially if you’re white. After all, a Black man is writing, so you’re at liberty to enjoy the premise, and, more perversely, to have validated an unspeakable, inevitable and “natural” aesthetic superiority that transubstantiates white people into beings of worship. If you’re Black, the smile is tight. You think, Danger! Brotha, no! Please don’t feed them that.
But Buoro takes the risk in this bildungsroman of 15-year-old Andy Aziza. In the more sensational of the two plotlines, Andy hangs with his “droogs” and tries to control his hormonal desire for white girls. It’s the stuff of romantic comedy, complete with confessions of love, meltdowns, pursuits through airports. There’s even an overlooked girl next door. In the second storyline, Andy loves his mama, wonders about his father, and communes with his stillborn brother.
Both storylines are set within Buoro’s vibrant, nuanced representation of Nigeria. He does not exoticise or sanitise Africa for the western gaze. Instead, he presents west Africa’s complexity and contradictions, its competing influences: Kannywood and Hollywood, hijabs and Gucci, egusi and Sprite. The tensions between Islam, Christianity and traditional African spiritual beliefs are powerful enough to wrench both plotlines from their trajectories into unexpected futures.
Buoro loves a dramatic reveal. Backstory crashes in on the present. Mysterious men appear. Relations are clarified. The big secrets stretch suspense over the entire novel while other revelations have a brittle, fleeting thrill. There’s even a Luke-I-am-your-father moment that ventriloquises Star Wars.
Indeed, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is a novel written in an age of screen ubiquity. The screen remakes the conventions of the novel, alters the assumptions of what constitutes a dramatic turn, and amplifies the pitch of violence and sex. Drama becomes melodrama. Action becomes acting. Occasionally, the characters do not so much speak as say their lines. Our main characters are teenagers, true, but they needn’t have diminished emotional capacities. In fact, the teen years arguably carry more inner turbulence – prime literary material – than adulthood.
What’s a bildungsroman without an epiphany? Andy’s leads to a gripping climax and a subsequent epiphany, evidence that our boy has grown as a character. He was always a likable yet flawed protagonist. While tragic events befall him, Andy remains the author’s darling. Buoro affectionately mocks Andy for “the four strands of beard under his chin”, but Andy’s self-regard is much more severe. He speaks of himself in lower evolutionary terms: “I’m a Homo habilis”; “the pig and ape that I am”; “Is she not afraid I might stain her, my colour jump onto her like in those monster horror films?” Contrast that language with the “white seraph”, “her meadows and perfect skin”, “her platinum Strands of Power”, and the danger signs flash again. In the hands of a poor reader, this book is a dangerous weapon.
But we’re meant to see Andy’s desire as silly. We’re meant to be troubled. Buoro reveals how much our tastes have changed from the poison that we once consumed, that Andy still consumes.
There’s an unsettling passage in the novel where Eileen, the white visitor to Nigeria, speaks “flawless” Hausa then laughs at Andy when he says innit. She censors him: “Don’t say that.” In other words, she feels at liberty to speak his language while policing English, which is also his language. It’s a provocative theme: who sets the boundaries of our language or our desire? To the potential of our lives, who says, this far and no farther?
Buoro commits to representing diversity within Blackness, the way Toni Morrison does. His two best droogs are a gay character and a horny comic sidekick – perhaps too conveniently cast. But unlike Morrison, the status of the white character, Eileen, reigns over the book. It makes me wonder, why aren’t the lives of Black people enough to frame a story? Why is the salient thing about this novel the white girl, who is not particularly interesting as a character?
You wouldn’t be wrong to read the book as satire of a certain kind of Black aspiration, or as an allegory of Africa and the western imperialist project. Or you could read it as itself, without abstracting its particularities: the story of a boy doing his best under the assault of powerful western influences and illusions. Buoro doesn’t preach or judge. He leaves us suspended between interpretative options. He seems uninterested in making us woke. Like Morpheus, in one hand he holds a delusion, and in the other he holds reality.
• Ian Williams is the author of Disorientation: Being Black in the World. The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa by Stephen Buoro is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.