If Lizzie Damilola Blackburn's debut novel, "Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?," was to become a TV sitcom, it could run episode after episode, season after season, without losing steam on story material. Cheeky and entertaining, the novel, which spans just six months in the chaotic life of its British-Nigerian protagonist Yinka, packs in a whole lot of cross-cultural drama and social commentary with an easy-going, conversational style.
Add romantic and professional mishaps, and complicated relationships among four Black women living in England, two of whom are Yinka's cousins, and you have the makings of comedic gold.
Don't be fooled by the novel's slow, somewhat clunky start. A festive baby shower for Yinka's sister turns into religious prayers, one by Aunty Debby for Yinka to find a huzband, which the book defines as "a non-existent man in a non-existent marriage whose whereabouts is often asked, usually by Nigerian mums and aunties of single British-Nigerian women."
For Yinka, only 31, single and financially independent, there is a lot of the conventional and traditional imported from Nigeria to scoff at here. But like most societal and familial pressure, it can all exact a psychological toll on a young person.
After her cousin Rachel excitedly announces an engagement at the shower, Yinka embarks on Operation Wedding Date, drawing up a detailed plan with "objectives," "tasks," "deadlines" and "key performance indicators" for finding a date to Rachel's wedding later in the year. Not that Yinka is a pushover. She admits to being a dowdy misfit. She becomes desperate for approval, especially her own mother's, and is even willing to tell lies along the way. (Again, very much like a character in a sitcom.)
Yinka is also hyperaware that she is a dark-skinned woman with a low-maintenance approach to her appearance in a world where, she concludes, the light-skinned women are more desirable, and weaves and sexier clothing ("NO cardigan permitted!") are a better draw for men. Here Blackburn offers insight into the way colorism and certain societal preferences for hair textures can affect women with darker skin and curlier hair.
As the novel progresses toward its nuptial ending, other interpersonal themes, some overly religious, are woven into Operation Wedding Date. Yinka meets new men and reconnects with old ones. Her friendships with other women are highlighted throughout the book as well, the most meaningful ones being with those who embrace their Nigerian-ness yet forgo conventional routes to finding love and fulfillment in their careers.
If it seems Yinka could learn a thing or two from these women, she in fact does — and a more authentic path toward personal and professional progress opens up for her.
Perhaps one mark of a successful book, however crammed, is if the reader still wishes to know more about what happens in the main character's life after a book ends — that is, as the story moves off the page. We may have to wait for that sitcom starring Blackburn's Yinka.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and fiction writer.
Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband?
By: Lizzie Damilola Blackburn.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, 384 pages, $26.