Fiction Review by Micaela Maftei

Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2020). Paperbound, 317 pp., $23.95.

Butter Honey Pig BreadIn this novel, as in our lives, hunger brings problems. Rather than follow the wisdom of this novel to “[h]old it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well,” the central characters in Francesca Ekwuyasi’s lush, densely plotted story keep trying to find ways around giving the heart what it needs, chasing instead what they think it wants or should have. Butter Honey Pig Bread—longlisted for the Giller Prize, finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Englishlan guage fiction, Canada Reads contender, and included on many “Best Of” lists—features two generations of a Nigerian family navigating serious trauma. Three women—Kehinde, Taiye, and their mother Kambirinachi—all want in different ways, and their attempts to silence some hungers and give in to others form a theme that doesn’t so much recur as exist on every page.

The choices Ekwuyasi makes around how the novel moves through time help bring out these connections—between hunger, the satisfaction of hunger, and the pain of unsated hunger. A trauma felt most shockingly by the child Kehinde rends the fabric of the family and sets conflict in motion. This event drives much of the character and plot development, but it also exists as a response to (or echo of) something else: Kambirinachi’s earlier‐generation trauma sprung from her belief that she was born an Ọgbanje, a spirit that brings misery to a family, specifically in the form of children that die and are reborn to the same mother repeatedly. Kambirinachi believes she has rejected her intended role by choosing to stay alive in the human realm. This choice makes the seemingly supremely normal path of marrying and having her own children feel nerve‐wracking and somehow revolutionary, as she is surrounded (plagued?) by what she calls her Kin, who continually call to her and attempt to draw her away from this human life. This paired abandonment/rejection forms the text’s backbone.

Misery indeed visits this family, through loss, violence, and a resulting fracture that separates the three women for years. Kambirinachi’s hunger to stay in the human realm ends up causing pain: her own and her daughters’. “No child should have to eat that pain,” she thinks, reflecting on Kehinde’s suffering at the hands of someone else’s distorted appetites, and then a breakdown, where “[r]age became her feast. Kambirinachi gorged herself.” The novel moves back and forth across decades, paralleling Kambirinachi’s youth with her daughters’, and this in turn echoes the nature of the Ọgbanje, who is said to return again and again, in different forms but with a singular objective.

This is how families often are—one generation works through the experiences of another; talismans take different forms for different people while performing the same functions; the people who need each other most push each other furthest away; necessary conversations take years to work up to. Ekwuyasi’s writing acknowledges and understands this; so much of the book is (sensitively and thoughtfully) about working through trauma and understanding how to connect to those we love in a genuine way. She is successful at creating the effect of a kernel of pain that ripples outward, barely losing momentum over decades.

Kehinde’s trauma, we eventually discover, is more layered than it initially seems, and her sister, Taiye, broken by guilt over her inability to help or respond to Kehinde, cycles through a series of abandonments— breaking contact with her family and moving first to London, then to Halifax, where we witness her drug‐and‐sex‐fuelled attempts to dull the pain of her unaddressed trauma (her lovers, some more illadvised than others, are “feeding a hunger to touch and be touched … her appetites weren’t terribly sophisticated.”). She’s also busy training as a chef, and here is where Ekwuyasi’s writing comes to life most. Food is, of course, about hunger, appetite, satisfaction, consumption, and pleasure, and Taiye’s approach to food and cooking—sensual, inventive, intuitive, connected to her heritage and home—stands in contrast to her shyness and broken family communication. This lack of communication is underscored by the dozens of letters she writes to Kehinde and never sends, pages and pages of a one‐way dialogue that fails to help either of them (but that helps fill in for the reader what Taiye is up to and how she’s feeling about it).

Ekwuyasi leans heavily on this replacement form of communication; when Taiye and Kehinde finally occupy the family home after a decade apart, they bond over food, not only as a way of connecting to the past but also as a safe topic of discussion. This reaches its endpoint when Taiye finally opens up a true dialogue with her sister, but only after cooking a special meal, “because when you need to make amends with your … sister, it’s best to have a meal prepared to accompany [the] apology.”

The book is best when Ekwuyasi’s prose becomes saturated with colour, flavour, sensation. Lagos, Halifax, Montreal, London all come to life in their smells and textures. Dialogue is often less strong—some exchanges feature information‐dumping that takes us out of the flow of narrative, and several characters rely too much on ums and ellipses that, while not unrealistic in actual speech, also slow down the reading flow. The characterization is much more successful in characters’ thought processes, and, given that the book moves easily amongst the three women’s inner thoughts and perspectives, this also shows Ekwuyasi’s skill in creating distinct voices and feels for each.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a careful portrayal of suffering and healing, shot through with rich imagery.

—Micaela Maftei

As in The Malahat Review, 216, fall 2021