Friendship, Womanhood, and Identity in Nikki May’s WAHALA

Centring around the lives of three mixed-race race women—Ronke, Boo, and Simi—as they navigate their challenging 30s, Nikki May’s debut novel WAHALA considers womanhood and the mixed-race experience. Their close friendship is put to the test with the appearance of a certain someone from their past, Isobel, a wealthy, glamorous woman who is determined to fix their futures for them. In its tale of these three women, WAHALA is a riveting exploration of friendship, belonging, and identity that will have you drinking from its palm until the very last page.

Am I strong enough?

This is the poignant line that opens Nikki May’s debut novel WAHALA, speaking directly to the novel’s portrait of womanhood and the mixed-race experience. Labelled ‘the weaker sex’, women battle misogyny throughout their lives. For women of colour, oppression is two-fold. In WAHALA, May’s protagonists must wade through the struggles of sexism in the workplace, the gilded cages of wifehood and motherhood, and the trials of dating, all while also experiencing racism. With misogynoir, the battle is fought on two fronts.

WAHALA centres around the lives of three mixed-race race women—Ronke, Boo, and Simi—as they navigate their 30s. Ronke, a dentist, is keen to get married, but a string of failed relationships haunts her. Boo is trapped in domesticity: a mother and wife, she feels she has lost a part of herself. Simi seeks to make her way up in the fashion world, but her colleagues only see value in the colour of her skin, in her ‘urban’ background. Their close friendship is put to the test with the appearance of a certain someone from their past, Isobel, a wealthy, glamorous woman who is determined to fix their futures for them. Slowly, Isobel’s involvement in their lives throws their equilibrium into chaos and their unity is put to the ultimate test.

The first thing that stood out to me about WAHALA was the ease with which May creates an air of familiarity. We are first introduced to the three women when Ronke goes to meet Boo and Simi at their favourite spot: a quintessentially Nigerian restaurant, Buka. The air is laden with food smells—palm oil, fried peppers, and stockfish—loud music, and even louder patrons.

“The first thing that stood out to me about WAHALA was the ease with which May creates an air of familiarity.”

For me, May’s opening chapter resurrected memories of attending similar restaurants in East London and I was immediately enamoured with the story. I could taste the flavours on my tongue as I read about their meal, echoes of an experience we rarely see in print. Ronke, Boo, and Simi make an intriguing trio, and May’s effortless writing style and natural dialogue create a solid image of their distinct personalities in the span of just a few pages. Soon enough, I was laughing, crying, and cringing along with these women as their lives go from complex to catastrophic amidst a whirlwind of drama, secrets, and betrayal.

As the story develops and we spend more time with Ronke, Boo, and Simi, we get to understand them better. These characters surface from flat pages with motives and histories are fully believable. None of these women are perfect—far from it, they are each inherently flawed in ways that feel entirely human. Each has a blindness to her own faults, often pinning the issues in their lives onto others. Ronke’s idealised image of relationships has her chasing the ghost of her father in other men. Boo is smothered by her role as a mother and a wife, growing resentful towards her family rather than speaking up about the situation. Simi is the queen of denial and bottles up her feelings until it’s far too late. Meanwhile, Isobel is master of manipulation, pulling at the threads that hold this trio together and creating chaos. As they discover these errant parts of themselves and each other, the consequences of their actions drive a wedge in their friendship—and it makes for a riveting story.

“Ronke, Boo, and Simi surface from these flat pages with motives and histories are fully believable.”

I couldn’t write this review without mentioning May’s portrayal of what it’s like to be mixed-race. While all four women (yes, even Isobel) have white mothers and Nigerian fathers, their perception of the world and experiences are miles apart. Boo’s perception of Nigerian men is wholly informed by how her father left her mother before she was born. She doesn’t really connect with her Nigerian side. Ronke grew up in Nigeria and has fond memories of living in Lagos with her father. To preserve his idealised image, she immerses herself in Nigerian culture, regularly cooking Nigerian food and maintaining a close relationship with her Nigerian family. Simi stands somewhere between the two: she also grew up in Nigeria, among the wealthy patrons of the Ikoyi club, until her father’s business collapsed. Now she is fiercely independent but stifled under the weight of her father’s expectations. In its tale of these three women, WAHALA is a riveting exploration of friendship, belonging, and identity that will have you drinking from its palm until the last page.

By Lizz Burrell

LIZZ BURRELL is an Editorial Assistant at Harper Fiction. She loves commercial fiction, with a particular weakness for crime and romance. In her spare time, she likes to take naps and try to learn to crochet. You can find her @LizzBurrell on Twitter and @readingismyfirstlove on Instagram.

Born in Bristol, raised in Lagos, NIKKI MAY is Anglo-Nigerian. At twenty, she dropped out of medical school, moved to London, and began a career in advertising, going on to run a successful agency. She later turned to writing. Her debut novel WAHALA was inspired by a long (and loud) lunch with friends. It is being turned into a major BBC TV drama. She lives in Dorset with her husband, two standard schnauzers, and way too many books. You can find her on Twitter @NikkiOMay and Instagram @nikkimaywriter.

Friendship, Womanhood, and Identity in Nikki May’s WAHALAWAHALA by Nikki May
Published by Doubleday on 6 January 2022
Genres: African, Black British, Chick lit, Contemporary, Urban, Debut, Literary fiction, Women's fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Bookshop.org
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Ronke, Simi, and Boo are three mixed-race friends living in London. They have the gift of two cultures, Nigerian and English. Not all of them choose to see it that way. Everyday racism has never held them back, but now in their thirties, they question their future. Ronke wants a husband (he must be Nigerian); Boo enjoys (correction: endures) stay-at-home motherhood; while Simi, full of fashion career dreams, rolls her eyes as her boss refers to her urban vibe yet again. When Isobel, a lethally glamorous friend from their past arrives in town, she is determined to fix their futures for them. Cracks in their friendship begin to appear, and it is soon obvious Isobel is not sorting but wrecking. When she is driven to a terrible act, the women are forced to reckon with a crime in their past that may just have repeated itself. Explosive, hilarious and wildly entertaining, this razor-sharp tale of love, race and family will have you laughing, crying and gasping in horror. Fearlessly political about class, colourism, and clothes, the spellbinding WAHALA is for anyone who has ever cherished friendship, in all its forms.

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