What to do when a guru reveals that your loveless life is down to the wrong body shape? Aissatou is a Cameroonian woman in Paris who cleans the beach toilets along the River Seine. Years living in Europe have left her feeling confused about her identity. She has tortured her African body to take on the ‘flat geometries’ of white women and please different lovers. One day she decides it is time to reclaim her roots and find a husband.
She sets her sights on her neighbour, Suleiman Bolobolo, from Mali. He is a handsome man with a series of girlfriends and lives with his senile mother that keeps a pet chicken. Never mind that Bolobolo hardly pays her attention. Following the advice of the guru, Aissatou embarks on a secret campaign to secure his heart through his stomach, cooking him delectable meals from her home country.
Her best friend Eric Friedman, who is half in love with her, believes the plan is faulty. Her transformed looks set wagging the tongues of her multifarious neighbours. Bolobolo’s mother and current girlfriend further complicate matters by competing for his attention. But undaunted, Aissatou scours the markets for unusual ingredients, revamps her wardrobe with expensive lingerie and recalls her mother’s wisdom for keeping a man.
As she doggedly cooks her way into the Bolobolo’s heart, she wrestles with roles of gender in society, a question which upsets her till she decides ‘there is no answer’. Like the ambiguity of the book title, Aissatou eventually realises there is more to love and dating than great culinary skills.
Written in the first person, with vivid sexual imagery and humorous language, Beyala takes a satirical look at fusion romance, the importance of food in human relations, and how the best-laid plans for marriage can be scuppered. At the end of each chapter she includes the recipe to an exotic Cameroonian dish, such as Turtle with green plantain, Boa in banana leaves and Smoked Antelope with pistachios.
We see that despite integrating into western lifestyles, African women still slip into the society’s definition of feminism as a means to an end. In between talk of appetising dishes, we understand the lot of the African diaspora in Europe and the issues of racial relations.
In the past, Beyala has been accused of male sexism in her writing. Along the same lines, this story has no decent male characters and most are stereotypically portrayed as irresponsible or adulterous. Nevertheless, a zesty and amusing novel written in a straightforward style.
Beyala, 56, lives in France but was born in Cameroon and has written 15 other novels. She has previously won awards from Unicef and the Academie Francaise. This book was translated from French.
Star Rating: 4/5