HONEY AND SPICE, by Bolu Babalola
If she weren’t a writer, Bolu Babalola could be a great cultural anthropologist. Her work is rife with observations that have the richness of field notes. In ethnography, the way she writes would be called thick description — it’s precise, layered and interpretive . In her debut romance novel, “Honey and Spice,” Babalola trains her keen eye and considerable wit on young Black British society.
The setup is straightforward: Kikiola Banjo is in her second year at Whitewell College, where she is a student broadcaster and an aspiring multimedia journalist. Kiki has carved a good life outside the social fray at school. She has her show, “Brown Sugar, ”Which has long been the glue that holds together the female factions of“ Blackwell ”(as Whitewell’s eclectic Black communities are collectively known); she has her best friend, roommate and producer, Aminah; and she has her studies. For Kiki, relationships Then the handsome and charming transfer student Malakai Korede strides onto campus and threatens to shatter that equilibrium. Malakai seems like trouble to Kiki — he’s slick, the kind of man who’d bring division and heartache to Blackwell — so she dubs him “the Wasteman of Whitewell” on air to warn off her classmates.
But containing Malakai is easier said than done when Kiki and Malakai’s academic tutor pairs them together as partners on a project. Suddenly Kiki’s being spotted around town with a guy she’s dubbed a wasteman? Not good. Even worse, she’s getting to know the real Malakai So Kiki and Malakai decide that the best thing to do is to double down, and they forge a strategic fake-dating arrangement that they hope will rehabilitate their reputations within Blackwellian society.
In “Honey and Spice,” Babalola plays with familiar literary romance tropes — hasty first impressions, rivals who become lovers, fake dating — to explore questions about gender and sexuality: How does a modern woman level the dating playing field — by separating feelings from sex and steering clear of relationships? Or is that a retread of a decades-old idea to “date like a man”?
These questions are encapsulated in the novel’s opening scene when Kiki and Malakai first collide as strangers in a dormitory hallway. Malakai is on the way to a potential hookup; Kiki’s just leaving one. In Kiki’s view, her hookup is practical and liberated, meeting her needs without entanglement, but she judge Malakai for his encounter.
Does Kiki’s reaction reflect a gendered hypocrisy? Or do past and present gender inequities demand asymmetrical standards?
Those debates about relationships and gender are the heart of “Honey and Spice,” making it a novel of more sweetness than spice, more contemplation than action. As in Jane Austen’s novels, the narrative centers on the war between individual attraction and social constraints in The true stars of “Honey and Spice” are characterization, banter and sharp social observation, all of which Babalola renders spectacularly. She soars in her rich depictions of intimacy and relationships, in all their grandeur. And Babalola blends the vernacular and rhythms of Black American music with Black British culture, and its fusion of Pan-African influences, making the text even richer.
Few novelists debut with the type of built-in following that Babalola wields. She has developed an audience over the years with her popular online cultural commentary, and “Honey and Spice” comes on the heels of her excellent story collection, “Love in Color ”Expectations for her first full-length novel are high. Sexy, messy and wry,“ Honey and Spice ”more than delivers.
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, culture critic and media researcher. Her work focuses on social identity, public opinion and the politics of entertainment.
HONEY AND SPICE, by Bolu Babalola | 358 pp. | William Morrow | $ 27.99