“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” is a novella by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Of all the books nominated for the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize, this looked like the most interesting to my eyes. I’ve enjoyed previous Goldsmiths nominated novels including Acts of the Assassins and Satin Island.
The title comes from a poem by Mary Ruefle called “Donkey On”. You can read it here.
“Like a Mule…” is set in contemporary San Francisco and takes the form of multiple first person narratives, centred around Dr. Morayo da Silva, an elderly Nigerian woman who is approaching her 75th birthday. The novel explores old age, memory, and how we use those things as a filter through which we perceive ourselves and others.
I found this to be an entertaining novella. It’s brief, energetic and exuberant, but while its characters are mostly enjoyable to spend time with, the book as a whole doesn’t really go anywhere. It suggests a wide gamut of possibilities for where the story and its characters might go but none of the opportunities are taken, and the whole thing feels a bit flat by the end.
The characters are a global mixture and as such there could be a lot to say about how globalisation has picked many of us up and planted us in strange, new, and/or wonderful places. It could say a lot more about why people move to different countries and start new lives. For some people, it can be a privilege to enter old age in a place far from where one was born, especially if one has the means to build new support networks around oneself. For others, it can be a strange and dislocating experience, particularly when memories diminish and coalesce.
The author sketches the details of Dr. Morayo’s life, though perhaps we are not as privy to her thoughts and feelings as we might first believe. At one point, she reads some of her writing to another character and then later admits to excising parts of that writing to conceal what we are led to believe are autobiographical events. Even as close to her thoughts as we are, and despite the device of looking at her story repeatedly from the perspectives of other narrators, we can’t necessarily say that we are getting the definitive version of events. This makes the book an intriguing read, you’re never quite sure if things will trip out from under you.
I think I would like to have known more of Dr. Morayo’s back story, which is delivered in small fragments, remembered as needed by the character as she fathoms out her situation. However, we are also given access to the thoughts of her second husband (whom she abandoned), a plot line that is then abandoned. This spidering out of memory in all directions is captivating but when the novella itself fails to resolve by the end, it also feels a little frustrating.
However, what I will remember most from “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” is how Sarah Ladipo Manyika has managed to create a living breathing character whose feelings and life experiences you long to explore further. The experiences of black women are under-represented in literature, especially older women, and so I found the character of Dr. Morayo very interesting. Perhaps even more important is that in giving her an open-ended story, we can say that Dr. Morayo’s story is not over because she’s old. In fact, at the end of the book as much as at the start of it, her story is very much just beginning.