Taiye and Kahinde are twin sisters, daughters of Kambirinachi: Butter Honey Pig Bread alternates between their perspectives, each woman narrating their contemporary experiences through the lens of key events in their pasts.

The sister’s mother is Yoruba and their father is Igbo, something they often have to explain when they move to different parts of Canada and proceed to make connections in their new environs.

Each of the women considers “a force that matched and moved” and changed her “so profoundly” that reconsidering her life, she is “struck by the indelible the mark it left”. Each of them must confront a loss.

Sometimes a final and irrevocable loss, a grief that “squeezed, squeezed until it split a hairline fracture that ran the length of her”. Sometimes a loss of trust and intimacy. She “was my quiet partner, closer than my shadow, than my own skin. But on that day, I called her, and she hid.”

Another recurring theme revolves around questions of what we consume and what consumes us.

Sometimes a matter of literal feeding, like this dinner-for-four: “The four of them sat at the round glass table, set with raffia place mats and cutlery wrapped in batik napkins. Taiye flitted in and out of the kitchen with tray after tray of dishes to be shared. Rice bejewelled with large pieces of smoked fish, crayfish, and aromatic efirin; gorgeously browned chicken; small balls of mosa; and that obscenely decadent chocolate cake.”

Sometimes a question of appetites and what we crave and what we eschew: “The trouble was that Zora wanted more than Taiye could give. She was hungry for a full meal, but Taiye offered only appetizers…”

The action in Francesca Ekwuyasi’s novel is character-driven rather than plot-driven but, nonetheless, readers are immediately curious as to why relationships are distended and strained. As characters move across time and space, the author serves as a dedicated and authoritative guide.

Transitions are succinct and connections are drawn clearly. Like this one, for instance: “Long before she would go back home to Lagos, before her beehive, before the meals she would make to appease – more truthfully, avoid—her sister, there was a Sunday morning in South London, drowned in the wet sanguinity of spring, when…”

The focus on women’s experiences–in the context of a narrative revolviung around how we are nourished and how we are wasted–feels sharply and enduringly relevant. Francesca Ekwuyasi’s attention-to-detail is evocative and her prioritizing of compassion and empathy secures my interest; I’m eager to read what she writes next.

There are remarkable similarities between Ekwuyasi’s debut and previous Giller nominees, like Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (shortlisted in 1997, her most recent novel shortlisted for this year’s Giller), Michael Crummey’s The Innocents (shortlisted in 2019) and Jennifer Lovegrove’s Watch How We Walk (longlisted in 2014). And other stand-out sister stories: including Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows as longlisted in 2011 and Alix Ohlin’s Dual Citizens as shortlisted in 2019. But this year’s jury did not advance Ekwuyasi’s novel to the shortlist.

Inner workings
One of these characters remains unrooted in the novel’s present-day time and place. She carries with her “a sadness, the pitying kind of sorrow, to know the things that alive bodies could never be”. She outwardly appears to inhabit this world. But when readers have access to her inner thoughts and emotions, we learn that she also inhabits another world, and she has been existing between realms of being for a long time. “There were lovely things about being alive, she had to remember, like the taste of guavas.” In relationship to the theme of grief, hers is a particularly poignant state.

Functional and direct, for the most part, with a few figurative splashes, like the description of the family home below in Locale, and this one, which underscores the legacy of disconnected and fractured family relationships: “The whole time, Kambirinachi did her best to put aside thoughts of her mother, whose absence had grown into a bleak yawn of longing in her life.”

The family home in Nigeria: “The house stands three storeys tall. There is a wide balcony jutting out from the master bedroom on the second floor and two narrow ones on the third floor, like bulging square eyes and a straight line for a contemptuous mouth.” Some Canadian settings (including the Halifax Public Library, briefly). And neutral spaces: “The café smelled like most cafés must: earthy burst coffee, hot butter, warm bread. But here there was also the distinct sweet spice smell of cardamom.”

From the beginning, this novel subverts readers’ expectations. A story of a family reunified. A story of twins. A story of a cloistered existence in a walled and protected domicile. These are all situations which speak of intimacy and closeness. But these twins have gone for long periods without speaking. This mother is burdened by an intense grief after the loss of the girls’ father. And her mother was removed, both geographically and emotionally too. Readers and characters share a longing for restoration in this heartful story.

Readers Wanted
You find pleasure in the description of delectable desserts, even if you can’t actually eat them.
You read stories of grief as stories of hauntings.
You appreciate the irony that people are often furthest from those to whom they “should be” closest.
For you, cooking and sharing food matters as much as tasting.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!