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Book Review: The House of Shells by Efua Traoré (Chicken House)

Illustrations by Helen Crawford-White


For ages 9+



Did I love 'Children of the Quicksands' by Efua Traorė (Chicken House, 2021), the debut middle grade by this award-winning German-Nigerian children's author? Yes! Do I love reading middle grades set in Nigeria? Yes! Do I love it when stories are infused with traditional culture and folklore? Yes!



I had never heard of the Àbíkú. In Yorùbá culture in Nigeria, these are children who are born to die. The word literally means "born to die" or "predestined to die". They die before the age of 13 or puberty. The child is possessed by an evil mischievous spirit who one day becomes homesick for its spirit world and leaves having drained the life out of its host. Yes, quite shocking! Having done some research about this since reading the book, there is a common understanding nowadays that sickle cell disease might be the true cause of these childhood deaths, but without advanced medicine the Yorùbá people turned to spiritual explanations. Traoré takes the reader into the mystical world of the Àbíkú and the life of a 12 year old school girl, demonstrating even in modern day Nigeria the disparity within families of those who believe and those who don't, and the consequences thereafter. This is an unputdownable story of how two girls' lives become entwined after a chance meeting at the mysterious 'House of Shells'.


About the story

Kokumo means 'this one will not die'. Kokumo, or Kuki to her family and friends, is 12 years old and has just moved into Dr D's house in Lekki (see maps below). Dr D is her new step father and he and her mum, Grace, are about to have a baby together. It's change, change, change for Kuki. She's got a new sibling on the way, had to transfer to a new school and leave her best friend behind. It all feels a bit glass half empty. She finds it hard living in the new house with Dr D and her mum. She feels "strange that her mum now had a husband but she still didn't have a dad". A feeling some children will find familiar, I'm sure.



Now, you have to meet Aunty Bisola, Dr D's sister, the larger than life woman with her glamorous geles (head wraps) and charms! Kuki was ill as a baby and fainted once as a child. To Aunty this signified major alarm bells and she is utterly convinced that Kuki is an Àbíkú, so much so that she squirrels charms and tokens in all kinds of hiding places around the home in order to protect her. As Kuki's 13th birthday approaches, when Aunty warns that the Àbíkú spirit world will claim Kuki's life for good and leave her for dead, her fears for Kuki's life are becoming so overwhelming that she's told to get her belongings out of the house. Dr D and Kuki's mum have had enough!


Dr D tries to dismiss Aunty's claims. Kuki takes her mum's lead and mocks the very idea of the Àbíkú. And anyway surely as soon as she's 13 she'll be free of all this nonsense either way. Right? Guess what, it's her 13th birthday...


Unfortunately for Kuki, her birthday is turns out to be totally depressing. No-one at her school knows, no-one's home when she comes back after school. Not waiting to face the compensatory 'birthday fuss' when Dr D and her mum finally return from work in the evening, Kuki bolts from the house. She follows a little path through “tall elephant grass and trees, into the hinterland of Lekki”. Towards the direction of the beach, she discovers big rusty gates overgrown with climbing plants, with a driveway to a huge mansion. She squeezes through the gates without a care in the world. Perhaps she is going on an exciting fairy-tale adventure, all by herself, how fun - especially on her birthday!


Lekki beach, Lagos State, Nigeria
Lekki beach, Lagos State, Nigeria

There are shells everywhere - cowries, fan shaped scallops, cockles, clams, large conch and more. Once through the large door she spies the centrepiece of the estate, a beautiful and large, majestic tree. Captivating. Then suddenly a "thin wisp of a girl" appears from behind the tree, waif like, messy cornrows, a street kid perhaps. She warns Kuki about being out in the wilderness alone at night then disappears. What a strange encounter.


Cockle shells
Cockle shells

Kuki can't stop thinking about the beautiful old house with the colourful shells, and the girl. Lonely and curious, she returns. Again the girl warns Kuki to leave, she doesn't want to be her friend. Upset, Kuki runs home, but the girl catches up with her, she's sorry, perhaps they can be friends. The girl's name is Enilo. Enilo is the friend Kuki has been yearning for. The best friend who loves the books she loves, plays games with her, giggling and chatting for hours on sleepovers and is always there. It all seems too good to be true.


Enilo remains a mystery. Hopping in and out through Kuki's window, avoiding anyone else in the home and shying away from being introduced to the family. Enilo eventually gives a little and describes her own family to Kuki one night “…I only call them family because we are of the same home. Not because I feel in any way connected to them. They are wicked and every single day of my life, I wish I could swap families. I wish I could have been born into another life.” Such an interesting plot angle focussing on Enilo’s journey here. There might be children reading this perhaps feeling the same and perhaps Enilo is their champion in the book rather than protagonist Kuki, who has her own readers speaking to their different journey? Even though Enilo has so many secrets, Kuki is happy. So happy, in fact, that she becomes unable to disconnect herself and starts to feel weak and panicked without her.


As time passes, things start to feel different with Enilo, it feels like she's trying to say goodbye, that she has something in her own life that needs resolving, hinting to a choice between good and bad. Enilo means 'the person that went away', interestingly. With Enilo missing, Kuki fends for herself once more. Settling into school hasn't been easy. Empowered by the her new friendship with Enilo, Kuki does in the meantime stand up to the class bully by using her compassion through her pen to write down exactly how Moji's not doing herself any favours and that behind all that aggression and controlling behaviour is a girl who can do well and can be kind. Such courage!


Enilo returns, and finally talks to Kuki directly about the world of the Àbíkú. Then, Aunty bursts into Kuki's bedroom... Enilo hides, visibly filled with fear. Aunty requests that Kuki wear the earrings she gave her for her birthday... to protect her from the Àbíkú. Kuki finds them and puts them on at once. Perhaps Kuki's about to find out the truth about Enilo once and for all. Whatever happens next, it's not without a fight that these two kindred spirits attempt to survive to be together again. You'll absolutely adore the ending. I wonder what exciting adventure Efua Traoré is going to take us on in her next book!


Healing of Abiku Children by Twins Seven Seven 1973
Healing of Abiku Children by Twins Seven Seven 1973

'Abiku' Illustration by Envak Enkaqti
'Abiku' Illustration by Envak Enkaqti

Some useful links for further research:





About the creator


Efua Traoré (author)

Efua Traoré is a Nigerian-German author who grew up in a small town in Nigeria. For as long as she can remember, her head was filled with little stories, but it was not until much later that she began to write them down. Apart from Nigeria, she has also lived in France and Germany and she writes in English and in German. If she had her way, she would travel much more and write every single day. Efua won the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa with her short story ‘True Happiness’ and she is a literature grant holder of the Munich Literaturreferat. 'Children of the Quicksands' was her debut novel which won the Times / Chicken House Prize in 2019. She lives in Munich with her husband and three daughters.



Helen Crawford-White (illustrator)

Helen Crawford-White lives and works by the sea. She designs covers, illustrates books and creates websites. Helen has spent the last 10 years working on design projects in publishing, branding, lifestyle, digital and products.






Key themes


Nigeria

Cultural traditions

Friendship

Families

Bullies

New beginnings

Moving house

Starting a new school


Grab a copy


Buy here through my affiliate link at Bookshop.org or purchase from your local independent bookshop...

Publication date: 7 July 2022

Format: Paperback


Also by Efua Traoré:

'Children of the Quicksands' (2021, Chicken House)


Praise for 'Children of the Quicksands'

WINNER OF THE 2019 TIMES/CHICKEN HOUSE CHILDREN'S FICTION COMPETITION

'A joy of a book: rich, warm, powerful storytelling' KATHERINE RUNDELL

'A thrilling adventure bright with the gorgeous colours of Nigeria - glorious!' JASBINDER BILAN

'An excellent book ... rich in tradition and realism.' HANNAH GOLD, AUTHOR OF THE LAST BEAR

'[A] beautifully evoked story' THE TELEGRAPH

'Gorgeous ... an enthralling story' ABI ELPHINSTONE

'[A] terrific debut novel' YABA BADOE

'Traore's storytelling feels almost otherworldly ... exhilarating' THE TIMES

'A stunning debut' THE SCOTSMAN

'Full of secrets and myths' THE OBSERVER


*Chicken House Books provided me with a review copy of 'The House of Shells'.


Please like this post and leave me a comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts too!

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