THE PLOT: Set in Nigeria in the 1990’s, An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon is about an intersex twin who is forced to live life as a boy, despite knowing he is meant to be a girl. Since Otolorin’s birth, his parents have been ashamed. In cruel response to his “abnormal” genitalia, his mother tries to “cure” him with strict religion and his father flees the family home. When he’s accepted into a prestigious boarding school, he seizes his chance to be free. But will he be accepted if anyone finds out his secret? And will he ever get to live life like his twin sister, the girl he knows he is inside?
RATING: I felt so invested in the characters and plot of this novel so I have to give it four stars. No spoilers, but this book could come with trigger warnings for child abuse, rape and sexual assault. However, I felt it handled these sensitive topics well and it was these developments that kept me turning the page. Be warned – it reads like Young Adult (YA) and I’m not sure why this book wasn’t marketed as such (the novel spans the main character’s coming of age from 13 to 16) – but this only furthered my personal enjoyment. If you love a dual timeline, strong characters and coming-of-age stories, this is a book for you.
GOOD BITS: Character development is this book’s strength and I enjoyed how each character had clear a backstory and motivations for their actions. In particular, Oto’s internal struggle is portrayed so poignantly; your heart can’t help but break as he fails to fit into society’s gender roles. Setting the book in the early nineties was clever, as I truly couldn’t comprehend how he could learn more about the gender spectrum without help – knowledge we now take for granted with internet access. I feel like anyone who has struggled with their gender identity may be able to relate to the issues presented so sensitively in this book and it does well to cast a light on a topic so underrepresented in fiction.
Superficially, I also love a dual timeline so the flipping between ‘before’ and ‘now’ in the first part of this book really appealed to me. Plus, I’m not sure if it’s my childhood love of Enid Blyton books, but when a character goes to boarding school I am immediately sucked into a novel.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: You can tell this is a debut and I think the author still needs to refine her craft. This book is as liberal with the exclamation marks as I am when responding to Instagram comments and some key scenes were simply told rather than shown (cough, theatre group, cough). The last fifty pages dragged slightly as there was a lot of resolution so it felt like “tying up loose ends”. However, I’m confident that her next novels will be even more impressive and I can’t wait to read them.
OVERALL: Although this book isn’t marketed as YA, I think lovers of the genre will take to it well. There’s brilliant characterization (and character motivation) at all levels, which will keep readers entertained and a couple of plot surprises in there too. I’d highly recommend this to anyone looking for a diverse, character driven novel or anyone interested in the themes of identity and gender, and Nigerian culture.
Thank you to Dialogue Books (imprint of Little Brown) for sending me a #gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. An Ordinary Wonder is published in the UK on 25 March 2021.