Is there a safe space for the girl child? And what does such a space look like? This is the central question at the heart of Once Upon a Childhood, the often charming, sometimes off-putting debut novel by Lara Brown.
Obviously inspired by Enid Blyton’s Mallory Weiss series, ‘Once Upon a Childhood‘ details that adolescent stage and the particular specifics of growing up rich and upper class in Lagos. Brown is attentive to the cultural nuances, the emotional rollercoaster, the hormonal changes and the myriads of insecurities that accompany the coming of age process.
Once Upon a Childhood’s central characters are Lara, Bibs, Abi and Fola, best friends and soul sisters who meet while enrolled for their A’levels at Gatesbridge, an exclusive college. At least three of them come from money but as events play out, even wealth is useless at serving as protection from some of the uglier realities of life.
Brown traces the contours of the relationships that her central characters share while at the same time outlining their individuality. She does this by arranging the plot around the chapters, with each one representing a character’s voice and perspective. This proves initially clunky until about midway into Once Upon a Childhood when the characters begin to develop their own distinct voices.
Lara, rebellious and attention seeking is the glue that holds the group together. Fola, spoilt rotten by her parents has never considered a life beyond her privileged bubble. Abi has a tenuous relationship with her single mother and cannot wait to leave for college. Levelheaded Bibs appears sane on the outside but her calm exterior is only masking a troubled soul within. Once Upon a Childhood deals with these internal individual conflicts and how they spill over into the group dynamic.
Lara Brown’s voice is hardly original but at least it is uncluttered and straight to the point. She paints a vivid picture of the upper-class lives that her characters are living and is quite adept with the characterisations. Occasionally, she wears her influences a little too strongly and some of the dialogue stretches credibility.
Fast paved and unapologetically plot-driven, Brown’s narrative begins to falter when she departs from teenage frivolities and begins to focus on real-world concerns. None of the girls can escape the several tragedies that Brown has drawn up for them. From child marriage to rape, divorce to even teenage pregnancy, Lara Brown wants to tackle them all. And she tries too, even within her book’s modest 200 pages.
But while gusto and good intentions are admirable, they sometimes get in the way of a good narrative and as the characters begin to go through their troubles – and they really go through it – Once Upon a Childhood begins to read like a huge pile on of trauma. One of the strands could have been enough to tell a convincing narrative but the series of unfortunate events ensures that they aren’t handled as conclusively as possible. The only reason Brown gets away with it at all is because she hides beneath the young adult genre and it feels like life lessons are being dished out generously.
Once Upon a Childhood has a strong emotional core though and if you come for the fabulous friendship that centres the narrative, you might find yourself willing to stay for the dollops of drama that is served as a compliment.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.