As a Lagosian, books from Nigeria have always featured on my shelves. However, I’m curious to learn more about authors from other West African countries / of West African descent. So, I’ve put together this reading list to find a brilliant range of books from each country in the region.
I’m pleased with the range of books from historical fiction to thrillers, dystopia to family saga, and canonical classics to contemporary authors. Again, I’ve had to choose books in English or available in English translation, but I hope that makes this list accessible to range of readers.
I’ve struggled to find a good book for Niger so please comment / email / DM me on social media if you have a great book to highlight from a Nigerien Author that’s available in English translation.
This novel is based on the real life experiences of the author, who was born in Benin. Through a harrowing experience with sickness, an encounter with a clairvoyant traditional healer, and astonishing twists of fortune, the protagonist struggles to get an education and make his own way in the world.
Genre / Themes: Coming of age, rags to riches, self-discovery, identity
Written by the country’s most respected journalist, this novel was originally suppressed for being subversive. It’s set in the fictional West African nation of Watinbow which is led by a corrupt and immoral President.
Genre / Themes: Dystopia, counterfactual history, alternative reality
Written by a U.S. black female author, I wanted to include this book due to its amazing storyline. Set in 1986, the heart of the Cold War, Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. So, when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic, revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes.
Genre / Themes: Thriller, spy, communism, cold war, historical fiction
Four and a half stars! (Read my review here)
The novel’s namesake Señor da Silva is the local success story in Cape Verde. However, when his 387-page Last Will and Testament is read aloud – a marathon task on a hot afternoon which exhausts reader after reader – there’s eye-opening news.
Genre / Themes: Classic, tragi-comedy, farce
Ayodele has just turned eighteen and has decided the time is right to lose her virginity. She’s drawn up a shortlist: Reuben, a long-admired school friend, and Frederick Adams, the 42-year-old, soon-to-be-pot-bellied father of her best friend. What she doesn’t know is that her choice of suitor will have a drastic effect on the rest of her life.
Genre / Themes: YA, coming of age, female sexuality, feminism
Seeking greener pastures, Ya Rose quits her job and travels to the UK. However, life in the West is extremely hard and she must resort to luring men into relationships to try and escape her desperate situation.
Genre / Themes: Immigration, prostitution, sexual exploitation
The novel begins with Effia and Esi, two sisters in the eighteenth-century Gold Coast (now Ghana). They are unaware that they have the same mother and end up with Effia living in the British fort (a slave trader’s local wife) and Esi living below in the fort dungeons (bound for the Americas). This book is unique because each chapter is narrated by a different character, the descendants of Effia and Esi through the ages. From the slave plantations of Mississippi to the dive bars of Harlem, the novel is a masterpiece.
Genre / Themes: Racism, transatlantic slave trade, oppression, historical fiction
Shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize, this novel follows the lives of three generations of women in one family. As Ghana is gaining its independence, Lizzie-Achiaa is learning what it means to come of age whilst continuing her quest to find her missing lover. Some years later, in the aftermath of the consecutive coups, Lizzie’s daughter Akua starts out her independent life as a new, single mother. Finally, Akua’s child Sugri leaves her overprotective mother and goes to university in New York City.
Genre / Themes: Family saga, women’s interior lives, historical fiction
A diverse, own-voice, coming-of-age story with a charismatic main character. Eight -year-old Zaara and her family move to Ghana when her parents get tired of life in the U.K. A precocious child with Cerebral Palsy, she finds herself thrust into a society where her disability is not understood and is attributed to a spiritual cause.
Genre / Themes: YA, coming of age, disability
Following Kweku Sai’s sudden death in a suburban neighbourhood in Accra, a broken family comes together to share their individual stories and grief. Estranged relatives, with seemingly nothing in common, reveal their secrets, feelings and fears as they travel to Ghana to mourn.
Genre / Themes: Grief, family dynamics, family relationships
Long regarded Africa’s preeminent Francophone novelist, this is a memoir of Camara Laye’s youth in the village of Koroussa, French Guinea. From marvelling over his mother’s supernatural powers to his father’s distinction as the village goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood. Eventually, he must choose between this unique place and the academic success that lures him to distant cities.
Genre / Themes: Memoir, classic, coming of age, mysticism
The first novel to be translated into English from Guinea Bissau. Ndani leaves her village to seek a better life in the capital, finding work as a maid for a Portuguese family. The mistress of the house, Dona Deolinda, embarks on a mission to save Ndani’s soul through religious teaching, but the master of the house has less righteous intentions. Ndani must struggle through a series of hurdles before she finds love.
Genre / Themes: Romance, ‘rags to riches’, evangelism
A woman returns to Cote d’Ivoire after her father’s death. She confronts unresolved family issues and questions her identity amidst the tensions between traditional and modern worlds. The drama that unfolds tells us much about the evolving role of women, the legacy of polygamy, and the economic challenges of daily life in Abidjan.
Genre / Themes: Grief, family dynamica, feminism
At the age of ten, Birahima’s mother dies and he must leave his native village, accompanied by the sorcerer/crook Yacouba, to search for his aunt Mahan. Crossing the border into Liberia, they are seized by a rebel force and press-ganged into military service.
Genre / Themes: Child soldiers, exploitation, modern slavery
The novel follows Vee – a Liberian Journalist writing for a South African fashion magazine – as she unfolds the mysteries surrounding her life, and the death of a rebellious teenager, Jacqui.
Genre / Themes: Murder mystery, thriller
Historical fiction about the 19th century founding of Liberia. The novel dissects the fragile and tense relationship between the indigenous Liberians and freed slaves who, instead of living side-by-side in the land which became Liberia, fought amongst themselves as enemies.
Genre / Themes: Historical fiction, slavery, colonisation
Often compared to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for its place in the literary canon, Murder in the Cassava Patch tells a story of love, betrayal, jealousy, and murder as it follows the story of two young lovers in Liberia. It is a beautifully written novel that transcends time and offers readers perspective on Liberian traditions, culture, and views on love.
Genre / Theme: Romance, Classic
This is three books in one! Although not as well known outside Francophone countries, Ouologuem’s controversial works were banned in France before reappearing on the world stage. Le devoir de violence delineates the seven-and-a-half centuries of history of central Mali from 1202 to 1947, with sweeping violence, eroticism, and magical realism. Sometimes viewed as a rejection of the “first generation of modern African novels”, such as Things Fall Apart, this translation brings together some of his most famous works.
Genre / Themes: Historical fiction, slavery, colonialism, eroticism
Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But, when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.
Genre / Themes: Romance, exploitation, natural world, ecocide
A much-lauded literary masterpiece set during the Biafran War. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three central characters must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.
Genre / Themes: Romance, war, political instability
Star rating: Five stars
A classic with a firm place in the literary canon, the novel follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo man in the fictional Nigerian clan of Umuofia in the late 19th century. Okonkwo’s life is turned upside down when white men come to Umuofia and bring their new religion.
Genre / Themes: Colonialism, religion
Star rating: Five stars
Stay With Me is about Yejide’s relationship with her husband Akin. She marries him while still at University and their relationship develops against the backdrop of 1980’s Nigeria. She’s desperate to be the perfect wife and bear lots of sons, but her failure to produce a child threatens to ruin her marriage.
Genre / Themes: Marriage, infertility, polygamy
Star rating: Three and a half stars (review here)
The novel centres on Korede and her sister Ayoola, the aforementioned serial killer. It begins with Ayoola killing her third boyfriend in ‘self-defence’, and Korede coming to her rescue to dispose of the body, yet again. The novel explores Korede and Ayoola’s relationship, and the lengths people will go to protect their family. When Ayoola starts dating Korede’s colleague, Korede must choose between Ayoola and the man she secretly loves.
Genre / Themes: Sibling relationships, murder, intrigue
Star rating: Four stars (review here)
This novel is in the form of a letter, written by the widowed Ramatoulaye and describing her struggle for survival.
Genre / Themes: Grief, trauma
In contemporary Sierra Leone, a devastating civil war has left an entire populace with secrets to keep. In the capital hospital, a gifted young surgeon is plagued by demons that are beginning to threaten his livelihood. Elsewhere in the hospital lies a dying man who was young during the country’s turbulent postcolonial years and has stories to tell that are far from heroic.
Genre / Themes: Civil war, post colonialism
Driven from their home by drought and hunger, Askia and his family are forced to wander the African desert. Years later, it seems Askia is destined to relive his family’s curse night after night as he roams the streets of Paris in his taxi.
Genre / Themes: Migration
Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book about Greenland. Working his way north over nearly a decade, the memoir describes how Kpomassie finally arrives in the country of his dreams.
Genre / Themes: Memoir, exploration