Wahala by Nikki May

Book review: ‘Wahala’ by Nikki May, where toxic friendship turns into a thriller that needs more thrills ★★★

Boo, Simi and Ronke are navigating life in their mid-thirties in London. Ronke, a dentist, is hoping that her latest boyfriend, Kayode, will be her Mr. Right. Simi is pursuing a high-flying career in fashion and struggling with the decision about having kids with her husband, Martin. And Boo is growing dissatsified with her domestic life as wife and mother and growing increasingly attracted to her boss.

An old Facebook photo is what pulls the enigmatic and disgustingly wealthy Isobel into their lives. Isobel grew up in Nigeria with Simi, but they had been out of touch for decades. Seeing a photo on Facebook from a mutual friend’s wedding, Isobel reaches out to Simi to reignite their friendship. Something is off about Isobel from the start – she’s profligate with her wealth, driven around by a driver-cum-bodyguard, and lavishly bestows gifts upon the trio. It’s hardly suprising, then, that she turns out to be a sinister character. Upon her arrival, everyone’s life starts to go pear-shaped.

What I liked: Nigerian culture is infused into the story, particularly through the authentic dishes (Ronke’s favourite restaurant in London is like ‘stepping into downtown Lagos’), and other cultural customs like the aso ebi worn for special occasions – where everyone on one side of the family gets their outfits made from the same fabric. There’s also a sharp contrast between the way that Simi and Ronke connect with Nigerian culture, having spent most of their childhood there, and the disconnect that Boo feels, having been raised by her white British mother in England. We also get an insight into the way these characters experience colourism and racism within their everyday lives – like when patients come into Ronke’s dental practice and assume her (Hispanic, male) dental nurse is the dentist, or when Kayode prevents a white guy from assaulting Ronke and the police turn up to arrest him. These details enriched a narrative that otherwise fell rather flat.

The problem lies in the fact that we know everything has to come to a head – Isobel’s arrival portends this – but it takes a really long time to get there. As such, most of the novel is a slow slide into things going wrong and the characters becoming increasingly unlikeable and frustrating. The ‘thriller’ aspect doesn’t rear its head until the last 20% of the book, and it all becomes a bit cartoonish and wrapped up too quickly. It didn’t really work for me, but I’m sure it will have a lot of fans – and I hear it’s being made into a TV series, so I’ll be interested to see how they approach that.

With thanks to Doubleday for the advanced copy. Wahala will be published on January 6th 2022.

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