An Ordinary Wonder, Buki Papillon’s 2021 debut novel, follows the formative years of an intersex Yoruba Nigerian teenage girl, who is forcibly raised and socialized as a boy. The main character, Lori (given name Ottolorian, “Oto,” and assigned he/him pronouns throughout the story), knows that she is a girl, but presents as a boy because of the fear and stigma she faces from nearly all angles of her life. Oto faces unrelenting abuse and violence, perpetrated by those who know of her identity, and others who just view her as a target. In this review, I will use the name Oto and she/her pronouns to refer to her.
The novel, set in Nigeria, is structured into short chapters of “Before” and “Now,” which span Oto’s life from ages 12 to 16, (1989 through 1993). The “Before” chapters are marked with significant trauma and abuse, from bullying from her peers to physical abuse from her mother. Her mother’s abuse escalates via her religious extremism, and endorsement from the family’s local orthodox Yoruba temple. The “Now” chapters center Oto’s high school years at a prestigious boarding school. There, she navigates a new world of academic and art classes, crushes, and trying to fit in while being constantly afraid her puberty will reveal her. Yoruba Nigerian folklore and proverbs and sprinkled in throughout, giving the novel an anchor for the characters and the readers to grasp onto.
Oto struggles constantly with wanting to outwardly express her femininity like her twin sister but knowing she will face corporal and psychological retribution if she lets herself. While Oto’s experiences and emotions mirror those of archetypal coming-of-age stories, they are profoundly intensified by her repressed gender identity.
At the story’s most onerous, pivotal moments, Oto mentally retreats into a tranquil, imaginary space she calls the “in-between world.” This space also contains Yeyemi, a figment of Oto’s imagination who calms her and makes her feel loved. Oto’s moments in this world, as well as the discussions of Nigerian folklore, are the crème of the novel. Papillon’s writing flows with ease and beauty through these lyrical, serene vignettes. Like Oto, readers find much-needed reprieve, joy, and serenity. But despite these moments, the story ultimately struggles to sustain itself.
Oto’s first-person narration provides an intimate but unsteady voice. The inner dialogue fluctuates between having juvenile, moderately believable thoughts and ones that are sagacious and unbelievably mature.
The vacillation between time frames seems to exist to make it easier for the author to reveal certain facts about Oto’s past. While these moments are specific and purposeful, they squelch the book’s narrative flow and create a disjointedness.
The sheer volume of trauma and abuse, especially from the mother and the bully, feel excessive and unrealistic. Just as improbable are Oto’s forms of coping—she appears to be incomprehensibly unscathed most of the time. Many of the story’s most pivotal moments feel inserted for the sole purpose of Oto reacting to the situation, rather than because of natural plot progression.
In contrast to the Oto’s introspective depth, Papillon hesitates to explore Oto’s twin sister Wura, leaving their relationship shallow and underdeveloped. Wura seems to haphazardly decide when to stand up for Oto and when to shove her away. Paradoxically, the twins’ bond is simultaneously significant and under addressed in the story.
An Ordinary Wonder plays with narrative style, a tumultuous plotline, magical realism, Yoruba folklore, and time shifts. Much of this emphatically nods to Papillon’s strengths in this debut novel. Some, however, result in overcrowd and overwhelm. What Papillon attempts is admirable but ultimately untenable.