Morayo Da Silva is a retired literature professor from Nigeria approaching her 75th birthday – “ancient” by her home country’s standards, having “outfoxed the female life expectancy by nearly two decades”. Living in a similarly “old but sturdy” apartment in San Francisco, she is surrounded by the debris that you accumulate in an ordinary life: papers, unopened bills, junk mail, books, unfinished mugs of tea. She has no family and likes her freedom. Then an accident at home forces her to spend lonely days in hospital and a nursing home. On the surface, it’s not the most vibrant life. But Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a novel that is profoundly dissatisfied with surfaces.
The Goldsmiths Prize sets out to “reward fiction that breaks the mould” and, as a result, it occasionally unearths buried gems. Ladipo Manyika’s novel, shortlisted for this year’s prize, fits the description. Published by Cassava Republic, a Nigerian imprint that launched in the UK this year, it received no reviews in the national newspapers. As the Goldsmiths judge Bernardine Evaristo has noted, “A fiction about a septuagenarian black woman is almost completely uncharted territory in British literature.”
The novel’s title comes from a strange, esoteric poem by Mary Ruefle, “Donkey On”, which finds joy in everyday, persistent living. Even the most mundane activities jog Morayo’s memory. Her folded clothes hold “the smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton – diesel fumes, hot palm oil and burning firewood”. The act of cleaning her glasses provokes recollections of an eye hospital in Jos, the doctor’s breath “smelling sweetly of mangoes”. A book picked at random from a shelf contains a postcard from a former lover, his signature conjuring the image of hands held in a darkened cinema, “his thumb tracing circles in the centre of my palm”.
Morayo has a sense of adventure that belies her years (it is while she is balancing on the edge of her bathtub, trying to get a better view in the mirror of the perfect place for a birthday tattoo, that she slips and falls). She has a striking capacity for sensual pleasures – in walnut bread, in (not too sticky) pains aux raisins, or “melted drops of honey lavender and salted caramel” ice cream, or the bright green eyes of a shop assistant. And she is deeply sexual. It’s something that occasionally surprises her, as she is caught unawares by a “wave of desire” or “unexpected surge of feeling”. But why should arousal be unexpected because Morayo is over 70?
“Old age is a massacre,” she muses. “No place for sissies. No place for love songs. No place for dreaming. No place for dreaming erotic dreams about a man half my age.”
This generous treatment of character, eked out one sideways glimpse at a time, extends beyond Morayo. The novel is crowded with often incidental figures. As they brush against Morayo, the “I” of Ladipo Manyika’s first-person narrative passes between them like a talking stick. A passing homeless woman and a man Morayo meets at the nursing home are given as much time as her ex-husband or her closest friend, Sunshine.
Some of her dearest companions aren’t Ladipo Manyika’s creations at all. Morayo spends many hours in “the company of old literary friends”, and textual references and physical books litter the novel’s landscape – writing by authors as varied as Charlotte Brontë, Paul Auster, Émile Zola, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Gaines, e e cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin. The loosest of connections can bring a work swimming to the front of Morayo’s mind.
The overall effect is to breathe new life into an old cliché. Like the dusty spines on Morayo’s bookshelves, every character in this novel hides a vibrant, teeming inner world behind an unspectacular façade. When she goes to buy two bunches of flowers, she thinks of “Mrs Dalloway and her delphiniums”. Morayo is a woman who takes her search for pleasure into her own hands, sometimes literally. In the end, Ladipo Manyika’s book reminds us of the value of indulgence and delight – in sex, in food, in company, and in reading.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika is published by Cassava Republic (118pp, £9.99)