Spanning three continents, Butter Honey Pig Bread tells the interconnected stories of three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. Kambirinachi believes that she is an Ogbanje, or an Abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. She has made the unnatural choice of staying alive to love her human family but lives in fear of the consequences of her decision.
Kambirinachi and her two daughters become estranged from one another because of a trauma that Kehinde experiences in childhood, which leads her to move away and cut off all contact. She ultimately finds her path as an artist and seeks to raise a family of her own, despite her fear that she won’t be a good mother. Meanwhile, Taiye is plagued by guilt for what her sister suffered and also runs away, attempting to fill the void of that lost relationship with casual flings with women. She eventually discovers a way out of her stifling loneliness through a passion for food and cooking.
But now, after more than a decade of living apart, Taiye and Kehinde have returned home to Lagos. It is here that the three women must face each other and address the wounds of the past if they are to reconcile and move forward.
For readers of African diasporic authors such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of choices and their consequences, of motherhood, of the malleable line between the spirit and the mind, of finding new homes and mending old ones, of voracious appetites, of queer love, of friendship, faith, and above all, family.
I adored this compulsively readable story of three women – Kambirinachi and her adult twin daughters Taiye and Kahinde that gives you literary feels with a page-turner drive. Set primarily in their home country of Nigeria but extending to England, France, and Canada, this is a book about the messy relationships we have with ourselves and each other.
This book is all about loneliness, loss, and connection. Whether through trauma, mental illness, or the passage of time, each woman’s life is permeated with loss. And each of them cope in different ways, though all tend to make things worse for themselves. But this isn’t a hopeless or depressing book. The story begins when our protagonists reunite and begin to feel their way toward understanding, empathy, and a new beginning.
I am in love with Ekwuyasi’s ability to create fully formed characters with uniquely deep interpersonal relationships. In flashbacks, Taiye in particular is constantly falling into relationships, searching for meaning and connection after being cut off from her twin sister. Each time she meets someone, romantic or otherwise, we learn something new about her, and each person is interesting enough that you’re left wanting to read a book about them as well.
This is a very sensual book, both in terms of being sexy and literally in its focus on the senses. This book WILL make you hungry; the food descriptions will have you reaching for snacks and then sad that you aren’t eating what is described on the page. The physical parts of life, whether food or sex, are presented as comforts and unifying forces, as external things that can support internal realities or distract from inner work. The title itself is a reference to the four sections of the book; thankfully it is not one single food monstrosity.
Ekwuyasi’s mastery of the physical realm is matched by her deft touch with an inner landscape. Kambirinachi’s experience hearing the voices of her Kin can be read through a Western medicinal lens (she has schizophrenia) or through magical realism that accepts a world bigger and more spiritual than I am used to. Taiye also sees visions of Our Lady, and we are left questioning how much is imagination? How much is hallucination? How much is real? The book lets us decide for ourselves.
Butter Honey Pig Bread is making major waves, and it deserves all the praise that it has received. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I cannot wait for Ekwuyasi to write a second novel!
What Makes This Book Queer?
I don’t know if this is because I’m a queer lady, but Taiye’s character felt the most developed. She was definitely my favorite! Taiye is a disaster lesbian, winning and breaking hearts all over the world (including her own). This book gets sexy, my friends, but always in a way that feels rooted in honoring characters rather than exploiting sexualities. Although there is definitely the root of a romantic love story that develops over the course of the novel, I especially enjoyed Taiye’s queer friendships, and the various ways queer communities intersected with her journeys. Love of all kinds is celebrated, and that is my absolute favorite thing.
Find more books nominated for Lambda Literary Awards reviewed here!