Reading Nothing Comes Close by Nigerian author, Tolulope Popoola, was like eating dessert on a hungry stomach. I walloped it in one blow. After a week of slugging through the most difficult philosophical texts, my brain cells had been fried to a perfect crisp. All I wanted to do was lie in bed all weekend with a delicious novel that will make my heart beat and my stomach feel fuzzy in the way that only good romance stories—movies and books—could. Popoola’s debut novel was within reach on my Kindle and turned out to be the perfect thing for me.
Nothing Comes Close is not highbrow literary fiction, meaning that it is not a novel that Chimamanda Adichie would write. But that actually is a tremendously wonderful thing. Man cannot live on Adichie alone, not if you are like me and you find yourself always hankering for delightful and beautifully written love stories.
A truly African love story, Nothing Comes Close shows us how African women fall in love—cautiously but completely. It is London sometime in the 2000s. Four young women—Lola, Funmi, Temmy, Maureen, and Titi—are caught up in the usual London hustle, doing the career thing and still finding time to look pretty at parties and bars. But their lives aren’t perfect, especially for Lola, who is nursing a broken heart and hanging on to a job—as a financial analyst—that she doesn’t like. At a house party organized by one of the girls, she meets Wole. The attraction is instant, but in her classic Nigerian-girl approach to romance, she is hesitant, always worrying about “losing all sense of caution.” But when unexpected tragedy strikes in the form of a murder, the force of desire heightened by the pain of loss drives Lola into Wole’s arms. From that point, the driving question of the plot becomes: will Wole reward her need for comfort with love or will his dark past destroy their chance for happiness?
Right there you have the elements for a perfect romance story—a broken hearted young woman and a guy with a dark secret. But, then, it is what Popoola does with these elements that makes the novel such an entertaining read. The “dark secret,” for example, is smart and significant. Of course, I’m not telling. All I’d say is that I appreciate that in creating this defining characteristic of the romantic hero, Popoola dips into Nigerian history in a way that is not only learned but lovely.
Lola begins the story in first-person, but she doesn’t hold the floor for too long. The second chapter has Wole picking up the story where she left off. This chapter-by-chapter shifts in perspective is one of the most successful aspects of the novel. Chibundu Onuzo does something similar in her romance thriller, Spider King’s Daughter. But the difference is that while Onuzo has each character retelling the same incidents from their own perspectives, Popoola has each character picking up where the other stopped, so that with each new revelation in the plot, there is a new voice. Call it a narrative quirk, but it works like hell to keep the reader hooked.
My only problem with the novel is the problem I have with many African novels, especially those that are expressly about love and romance—the reluctance to describe erotic moments and sex scenes. The reader is expected to assume that since the two lovers kissed and slept on the same bed, sex happened. But how can these writers tell us a story about love without lingering at the most risky moment of the journey—the moment when the two bodies consume each other without knowing whether there’ll be anything left to hold on to the morning after? Don’t they know that portraying sex beautifully and powerfully is a literary achievement?
Anyway, I guess it is the fate of African fiction to forever be the kind of novel where bare bodies and bedrooms are closed off to the reader.
One fascinating tidbit about Nothing Comes Close is that it is a blog-turned-novel success story. It started out as an online fiction series called In My Dreams It was Simpler and morphed into a novel after extensive redrafting and careful editing. Little wonder that Nothing Comes Close is written in a crisp, clean prose touched with the classic allure of romance fiction. But nothing good comes easy and Popoola has had to make sacrifices. She quit her day job as an accountant to commit fulltime to writing. It is certainly inspiring that such an expression of love for writing is rewarded with a genuinely entertaining novel.
Published by Accomplish Press in 2012. This 193-page novel can be bought on amazon.com
Ainehi Edoro studies African and contemporary British novels at Duke University. She blogs about African writing at Brittle Paper.