Tomorrow I Become a Woman by Aiwanose Odafen – Book Review

Title: Tomorrow I Become a Woman (eARC)

Author: Aiwanose Odafen

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family saga

Blurb from NetGalley

What can I do?’ she asked. You can fight, I thought, you can fight for your daughters. But then again, who was I to speak of such things

When Gozie and Obianuju meet in August 1978, it is nothing short of fate. He is the perfect man: charismatic, handsome, Christian, and – most importantly – Igbo. He reminds her of her beloved Uncle Ikenna, her mother’s brother who disappeared fighting in the Civil War that devastated Nigeria less than a decade before. It is why, when Gozie asks her to marry him within months of meeting, she says yes, despite her lingering and uncertain feelings for Akin – a man her mother would never accept, as his tribe fought on the other side of the war. Akin makes her feel heard, understood, intelligent; Gozie makes her heart flutter.

For Uju, the daughter her mother never wanted, marriage would mean the attainment of that long elusive state of womanhood, and something else she has desired all her life – her mother’s approval. All will be well; he is the perfect match, the country will soon be democratic again and the economy is growing, or so she thinks …

Loosely based on the stories of real women known to the author, Tomorrow I Become a Woman follows a complex relationship between mother and daughter as they grapple to come to terms with tremendous loss. This powerful debut by Aiwanose Odafen is a sensitive exploration of a woman’s struggle to meet societal and cultural expectations within the confines of a difficult marriage, a tribute to female friendship and a love story that spans two decades and continents against a backdrop of political turmoil and a fast-changing world.

My Review

There’s something eternally fascinating to me about the differing relationships between mothers and their daughters. These women who carry us in their bellies, nurture us with their milk, and teach us the lessons we need to learn about men before we embark on our own journeys of adult life. Mothers want nothing but the best for their daughters, they want us to have more than they ever did… yet what this novel shows is how the most special of relationships can be fraught with complexities of stigma borne out of existing in our patriarchal society.

‘Tomorrow I Become a Woman’ is an utterly compelling read that follows the story of Ujo as she navigates life as a young single woman, through early marriage and motherhood, and on into middle age as she questions why she stays with her husband Gozie.

And her marriage with Gozie is horrific. He continually physically beats her leaving her in a bloodied mess. He emotionally and financially abuses and controls her, and try as she might she can never get away from him. She doesn’t have that support. Her mother tells her to be more subservient. Her father tells her to be more subservient. The church tells her to be more subservient.

The line that haunted me was “it is okay for a man to have a bad character as long as he is a man.”

So Ujo’s whole life is not her own. It is instead dictated by her misfortune of birth. That she was born female. When her daughters are born there is shame that they aren’t sons. When she goes out to work while her journalist husband is interred she’s accused of living it up in his absence.

And all through these years her mother, Obiageli, is there seemingly blinkered to the harsh reality of the abuse Ujo is living through at the hands of her husband. Instead her mother is constantly telling her to be good. To forget her studies, her aspirations of career. And instead be humble. Be good. Obey her husband. Pray for a son.

The storytelling here is flawless; the writing easy and accessible. I tore through this book in less than 24 hours barely putting it down to get some sleep. I was completely enrapt by these characters’ and their lives. The entire cast of characters in this book felt authentic which is a rare skill of writing as usually one or two characters tend to be underdeveloped. But not so here. They each felt so very real, and the hatred I felt towards so many of them (most notably Ujo’s husband Gozie and her mother) was incredibly visceral.

The author, Aiwanose Odafen, was so skilled at creating this toxic atmosphere in which Ujo had to survive. Like so many women she was unable to leave her husband for fear of reprisal but also because of a lack of finances. I think that’s an incredibly important aspect of these female centred stories to tell. How it’s not so simple as just walking out because where is the next meal for your children going to come from.

But oof…. That relationship with her mother Obiageli, I wanted to scream at her to cast off the shackles of patriarchal traditions that mean the lives of women are devalued and are somehow considered less important than their male counterparts. I hated Obiageli for how she enabled the ways of men over their wives and daughters. Ujo’s father seemed to be so much kinder in comparison and I wanted some of his softness and reasoning to rub off on his wife…

However when we finally learn about what Obiageli herself had to endure at the behest of men…. A literary equivalent of a sucker punch to the gut!

I wholly loved the character of Ujo. She had this inner strength and fire burning within her. While she wasn’t quite able to buck against patriarchal traditions when she herself got married she was utterly committed to showing her daughters there was another way of living. She may have been physically and emotionally bruised and battered, but she wasn’t meek or mild. When I think how the author based this story on the lives of women she’d spoken to… my heart aches. Because these brilliant, bright women have had to live lives of sheer hell and how they come out the other side is beyond me… of course not all women do get to come out the other side.

Another thing that was carefully considered was how the married life that Ujo led could look one way to her friends from the outside (ie she had a nice home, designer clothes, good schools for her children etc.), and was therefore seemingly in stark contrast to theirs. Really shows that you don’t ever know the truth of another person’s life unless you walk in their shoes. But what was particularly astute was how the author showed using Ujo’s female friends that even young women who had initially rejected the sexist ideals of men and marriage ultimately changed their way of thinking as the years went by which made me wonder what was going on behind their closed doors.

This book is an excellent study of the lives of women, their female friendships, their relationships with their husbands, but mostly it is a careful and delicately written novel about mothers and daughters.

Highly recommended

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

  • Publication Date: 28th April 2022
  • Publisher: Scribner UK

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