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Sarah Johnson

Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye, a compelling saga about a family of Nigerian heritage in '50s London

Spanning three decades, Lola Jaye’s Orphan Sisters is an addictive, emotionally fulfilling read that focuses on a topic – black history – too rarely touched upon in the English saga genre. Pardon the cliché, but I stayed up too late to finish it.

In 1958, sisters Lanre and Mayowa Cole, aged 7 and 5, and their mother, Adanya, emigrate from Nigeria to Britain in search of a more prosperous life. At the London airport, they joyfully reunite with their father, Tayo, who's worked hard to prepare a new home for them.

Tayo is an optimist, and their loving parents try to shield the girls from their difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings. The climate is cold, and their apartment is cramped; the culture shock is difficult enough, but they also encounter overt racism and anti-immigrant bias.

Without straying from Lanre's viewpoint, the novel also lets readers see her parents’ reactions. Although she doesn’t understand the “Keep Britain White” pamphlet she finds on the ground, her mother definitely does. The girls take the names Lana and May for school in an attempt to help them fit in.

Tayo dies unexpectedly, leaving Adanya desperate and, in her grief, unable to care for her children, who are essentially raised by her best friend, their white neighbor ...

Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye, a compelling saga about a family of Nigerian heritage in ’50s London

Spanning three decades, Lola Jaye’s Orphan Sisters is an addictive, emotionally fulfilling read that focuses on a topic – black history – too rarely touched upon in the English saga genre. Pardon the cliché, but I stayed up too late to finish it.

In 1958, sisters Lanre and Mayowa Cole, aged 7 and 5, and their mother, Adanya, emigrate from Nigeria to Britain in search of a more prosperous life. At the London airport, they joyfully reunite with their father, Tayo, who’s worked hard to prepare a new home for them.

Tayo is an optimist, and their loving parents try to shield the girls from their difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings. The climate is cold, and their apartment is cramped; the culture shock is difficult enough, but they also encounter overt racism and anti-immigrant bias.

Without straying from Lanre’s viewpoint, the novel also lets readers see her parents’ reactions. Although she doesn’t understand the “Keep Britain White” pamphlet she finds on the ground, her mother definitely does. The girls take the names Lana and May for school in an attempt to help them fit in.

Tayo dies unexpectedly, leaving Adanya desperate and, in her grief, unable to care for her children, who are essentially raised by her best friend, their white neighbor “Aunty Ginny.” When Adanya’s condition declines further, the girls are sent, along with their baby sister Tina, to a children’s home. Expectations there are low for black children, and they have only basic necessities and an indifferent staff, so Lana takes it upon herself to ensure her sisters remain as a family. Then lighter-skinned Tina is adopted…

It’s so easy to empathize with both sisters, who have very different perspectives: Lana, who assumes a motherly role despite her youth, and May, who takes refuge in books and closes herself off emotionally, even from Lana. The novel excels at depicting their complex relationship as well as Lana’s long-term friendship with Clifton, a boy from school.

Some sagas add contrivances to the plot in an attempt to heighten tension, but here the scenarios never feel less than real. Their separate paths forward are tough, yet this is a read filled with determination and hope as Lana and May establish places for themselves in a world that often seeks to hold them back. Orphan Sisters also explores elements of the girls’ Nigerian culture, and how their hairstyles, accent, and choice of name come to symbolize their desire to blend in or proudly set themselves apart, as they so choose.

The ending brings the story full circle and provides answers to any lingering questions. There were a few times I would have liked to know what year it was; a minor complaint. I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone interested in social history or simply seeking an engrossing novel.

Orphan Sisters was published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, in paperback this past Thursday (£5.99); thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

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