A slogan popularized in the U.S. a decade ago assured young LGBTQ people that "It Gets Better." Sadly, for gay people elsewhere (Iraq, Iran, Russia, Nigeria, scores more), the rainbow T-shirt might have to be altered to say, "It Gets Worse."

That would be true in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, which has criminalized gay marriage and all types of gay expression.

Fortunately, a growing number of writers — many of them living in exile — have bravely issued books that explore gay life inside the most repressive countries.

Last year's "A Nearby Country Called Love," by Salar Abdoh, centered on an unlikely group of gay, straight and trans friends in Iran, seeking to be themselves in a hostile homeland.

Now we have "Blessings," a spirited, heart-on-its-sleeve debut novel by Nigerian-born Chukwuebuka Ibeh, who is still in his mid-20s. The title is more optimistic than the story told, but there is a literary blessing in seeing Ibeh's exuberant talent ushered into the world.

Obiefuna, 15 at the novel's opening, loves music, school, dancing and his mother. He is chosen last for teams in soccer. Bullies target him. Clearly, there is something "off" about the boy.

One day Obi's shopkeeper father, Anozie, shows up with a tall, handsome young man in tow. Aboy has been drafted from a relative in a neighboring village to be the father's apprentice and live with the family.

Obi is smitten. "It seemed as if, with Aboy, Obiefuna's life had finally begun, a life he had been waiting to live." The attraction turns out to be somewhat mutual. But when Anozie catches the two teens in an embrace, he erupts in fury, beating Obi and exiling his son to a strict Christian school in a distant town. The punishment, it turns out, is hardly bound to "cure" Obi of his gay tendencies, as he discovers at boarding school a rich variety of same-sex activity.

The point of view of Uzoamaka, Obi's endearing mother, emerges in alternating chapters, her love of Obi contrasting with Anozie's harshness. The special bond between her and her oldest son is established from the joyous moment of Obi's birth, after a series of miscarriages. We learn that "his arrival had solidified, in some odd way, Uzoamaka's sense of place, restoring to her a lost ability to believe in the concept of miracles."

Nigerian politics remain mostly in the background until the novel's final chapters. Entering university, Obiefuna meets Miebi, an older gay man who represents the comforts of domesticity, deep affection, perhaps love.

His new circle of friends watches with high hopes as the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, ushering in marriage equality. Soon after, in 2014 and partly as a reaction against western liberalism, Nigeria enacts harsh anti-gay laws, followed by mass arrests, kidnappings and imprisonment. Gay life, even in the slightly more open south, goes underground.

By now, Ibeh has artfully made us fans of Obiefuna. His defeats, his disappointments somehow measure as meager compared to the abiding love he had from his mother and the insights gained in his hard-won, mistake-riddled maturity. His future, we believe, may permit him to trust his instincts, even to keep dancing.

Claude Peck is a former columnist and editor at the Star Tribune.


By: Chukwuebuka Ibeh.

Publisher: Doubleday, 288 pages, $28.