The astonishing debut novel of Akinola Peace
The book opens in 2003. Little Rose Peace is at church with her mom. She is too young to understand what’s happening, but she notices her mom is not acting like her usual self. Folakemi Oyindamola Chukwuma cries, doesn’t stop to chat with other worshippers after the service, she keeps herself to herself. Dad went away for work, but Rose doesn’t know where, nor when he’ll make it back. Maybe her mother is sad because of that. She is sure something’s wrong when her mom calls Janet, her father’s sister, and hears her say “he’s gone!”
2009. Rose is a teenager and she is living a totally different life than she did when she was six. Rose’s mom had to go through what it’s known as ‘a widow’s rites’: her father’s family took her hostage at their place for ten days, shaved part of her head, her eyebrows and her pubic hair, kept her on one meal a day and forced her to only dress in black and repeatedly interrogated and intimidated her, until she falsely confessed to be responsible for her husband’s death, giving them the power to strip her and her daughter of the house they lived in and any other belongings in her husband’s name. They never liked her and when she only produced female offspring, they accused her of being a witch and fought her even harder. As they are left homeless and penniless, Folakemi and Rose move into a smaller house, Rose transfers from a fancy private school to an average public one, and since her mom is forced to have two jobs to make ends meet, Rose has to help with housework on top of school homework. This has a huge impact on her, she isolates herself and despises her absent mother. One day, though, things change. A classmate of her, a big girl named Sandra (who is not only physically bigger than Rose but also couple of years older) approaches her, introduces herself and then introduces Rose to her clique, the Soul Sisters. It’s a nice day for Rose, who goes back home feeling lighter and in a good mood, which is soon spoiled by the fact that her mom left her another list of housework on the table. She is annoyed and frustrated, but soon her mood changes when she finds blood in her underwear and believes she is bleeding to death. She cries and panics, having no one to ask for help, until, exhausted, she falls asleep on the kitchen floor, only to wake up the following morning to yet another message from her mother, saying that since she was sleeping so peacefully she let her sleep. Rose is now scared and angry: she still doesn’t know what’s happening, she still has no one to help her and now she feels like her mother abandoned her. The only person she can think of is Sandra.
“Oh my God!” she yelled and laughed. “Is that why you’re crying? Wait, let me see it,” she said, still laughing. I turned around for her to see the stain of blood, but the volume of her laughter increased instead. I had never felt so ashamed in my entire life. “Rosie, dear, you’re only menstruating,” she said amidst laughs and hit my side playfully.
Sandra not only helps her, but also invites her to her place after school. Rose is impressed: Sandra lives in a huge house that looks expensive. During the afternoon, her friend serves snacks and soft drinks mixed with spirits, and while they all swear allegiance to the Soul Sisters clique, soon after the bonding ritual, Rose passes out. She is only 12, after all. Before she is out completely, though, she witnesses the girls kissing, moaning and groaning and she is intimidated and not comfortable with the situation. They wake her up hours later, looking scared. It’s 10 in the evening and Rose realises she is very late. She rushes home, to find her mother worried sick. Despite the reprimand, she thinks it’s a good moment to open up about the last two days, but her mother tells her she is very tired and if it was so urgent she could have come back home earlier, deepening the fracture between them.
Rose is now part of the Soul Sisters and soon she finds out that they all come from broken backgrounds: divorced parents, parents that left them behind to move to the States, families so religious they’re almost cult-like. That helps her feel more accepted. She finally has friends that supply for the lack of a family.
2013. Rose brings a girl back to her place. She is one year younger than her and knows nothing about being a lesbian, but she is quickly learning from Rose, who looks back at the past 4 years as the biggest bliss of her life. According to the Soul Sisters, the best way to get rid of menstrual pain is to sleep with a boy.
So, the girls set up a guy in senior class for me. He was mature, gentle and sweet. The initial stage of the encounter was harrowing, but not as much as my menstrual pain. Also, the boy was a pro. At 17, he already knew all the right styles, words, and positions to make me happy. The first 30 minutes were discomforting, but after my wall of purity was broken, the rest was a hell of a fantastic ride to cloud 9. I’d never been happier. Since then, I couldn’t stop. When I couldn’t have sex with anyone, I masturbated instead. The girls opened me up to a world of new things that I stayed glued.
But this time of bliss is not meant to last. The Soul Sisters, all older than her, soon graduate and they leave for university, some of them go abroad. She tries to keep in contact, but she is always the first one to start a conversation, that usually didn’t pass the opening pleasantries. “Distance weakens relationships, and no friendship lasts forever. I got the message and stayed in my lane.” Rose finds herself alone again. One day, during a walk, she stops in front of the Church she attended with her mother and after the service she speaks to the pastor who tells her that God is good and understanding and if she is ready to submit to Him, she is more than welcome in His house.
2015. Rose is taking the university access exam for the fifth time. She is still a Church worker, but the pastor’s sessions and prayers help that much, because she soon went back to the old ways. Rose has now a boyfriend, Joe, who she defines the companion she needs. Things between them are good, until Brother Demola, the choirmaster, approaches her offering some private singing lessons at his place. Rose, who finds him extremely fascinating – she is secretly attracted to him – accepts. The private singing lessons clearly transform into a sexual encounter, but the picture Rose had of Demola in her head and how he actually is as a lover are very different and leave Rose disappointed.
Finally, good news: she has been admitted to Lagos University. Here she is assigned a room with 3 other girls. One of them, Tara, is very devoted, while the other two are more into parties and enjoying life. Rose goes with them to a freshmen party, where she meets this guy, Fred, who is studying Computer Science at Lagos university too. After exchanging numbers and talking on the phone for a little while, he asks her out. They start dating intensely and they have a good time, so Rose feels like opening up to him about her past and he feels like opening up to her about his life. He admits to be a cybercriminal, a fraudster that scams white women, but he also adds that he is making good money out of it that actually helps his family and put his sibling through school. She feels she should support him no matter what.
At the same time, though, she accepts Tara’s invitation to a worship group on campus and she feels drawn to God again. It will be short lived again, because it will only last until she receives her exam results, which she failed. This means God is not really helping her, no matter how much she prays.
This is the leitmotif that will accompany her along her university years, a continuous bouncing between a debauched life and her faith, until she will devote herself completely to God, despite all the hurdles that life will put on her path.
This is an incredible book, a brilliant read beginning to end. It’s captivating, far from our ‘Western’ culture and at times tricky to understand, but up to this point in the year, the best book I’ve read. The prose is linear, clear and accurate, enriched by a series of sayings and filler words that sound obscure but fascinating, of which you don’t need to know the meaning to understand what they signify. It definitely put the spotlight on a culture we know little about, if nothing at all, which only leaves the reader thirsty for more. Rose is an amazing character, whose personal development is incredible and who has an adventurous but totally realistic life, and so are the other people orbiting around her. Akinola picks her words carefully and puts them together in a targeted direction: forward, just like Rose, who, no matter what, keeps going through thick and thin in life.
This is a book that deserves a special mention and definitely space on anyone’s bookshelf, no matter what your beliefs are in life.
‘Beyond the Stain’ is available for purchase at: https://amzn.to/3IrfIAn