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Dayo Forster: Reading The Ceiling

The book starts with Ayodele Roberts’ eighteenth birthday. She has made herself a promise. She will do The Deed, i.e. lose her virginity, on that day. She has three candidates for the job. The first is Reuben. He is definitely the number three choice but he fancies her, as she says, and, as she also says, a list needs names on it. Number two is her friend Yuan. They were often together and people thought that he was her boyfriend but he is not. And number three is Frederick Adams, the father of her best (female) friend. The cleverness of the book is that Forster tells three separate stories – the very different outcomes of her three choices, even though two of them are just one-offs.

The first is Reuben, only because at the party she cannot find the other two. Despite Reuben’s interest she does not have any further sexual relations with him and, indeed, he ends up marrying her younger sister (as he does in the other scenarios). As she says, Reuben has not brought knowledge. She goes off to London to study. There she has a sort of affair with Akim. He is very keen but she is not. Akim threatens suicide and his parents take him home (to Nigeria), where he marries someone else. She goes back home to work for the government and ends up marrying Frederick Adams after all. He is not faithful and when he gets arrested for anti-government propaganda, he returns a changed man. They do not have children and she misses it.

Number two is Yuan and the most successful one. They go off to London together and remain a couple. When Yuan is killed in a car accident, she is devastated. She goes to work in Mali for an aid agency and then returns home when her mother is ill. She meets a Christian minister and marries him, even though she does not really share his faith. She also has problems with her step-children.

Number three is unnamed but is presumably Frederick Adams, though we never find out. She later tells her son that it was her mother’s household servant/guard but only after her friend had told her to lie to the son. He does not use a condom and she gets pregnant. She decides to have the baby, against her mother’s wishes and the affair means that mother and daughter are more or less estranged, though her mother does help her out financially. She does various odd jobs for people, including administration and translation work before working for a successful Muslim businessman. He eventually proposes to her, though he is already married, and she becomes his second wife. She gets on well with the first wife and the first wife’s children. When the husband dies, she takes over his Mercedes dealership (the first wife gets the Peugeot dealership). Having being married to a Muslim, she now resumes her Christian faith and becomes involved in a church. However, she cannot unquestioningly accept the authority of the church and leaves.

None of the stories really ends and, in all of them Ayodele is clearly not particularly happy with her lot. The only child she has (in the third story) is illegitimate and she clearly misses having children and a happy marital relationship. Neither of her three marriages is particularly happy. There are common threads to all three stories – her mother’s illness and death and the fate of her younger twin sisters and her various friends – which are sometimes similar across the three stories and sometimes have slight variations. Yuan dies young in all of them, her sister marries Reuben in all of them, her mother gets Alzheimer’s in all of them. Does it work? More or less. It is quite clever and though, at times, Forster seems to meander along without a clear sense of direction. That Ayodele seems to have different results merely because of a planned but casual sexual encounter and that in all cases she ends up not particularly happy (though not particularly unhappy) with her life and her choices might indicate that that is how life is.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Simon & Schuster