Dayo Forster's debut, Reading the Ceiling (Simon & Schuster, May), opens with Ayodele, an 18-year-old girl growing up in the Gambia in west Africa, desperate to lose her virginity and making a choice between three potential lovers with whom to do "The Deed".
From there the story diverges down three paths according to which man Ayodele chooses: three alternate lives that take her variously to London, America and Mali, bringing mixed degrees of happiness and struggle, and with very different final outcomes.
Forster drew on her own background for Ayodele's circumstances: now 41, she lived in the Gambia until the age of 18, when she left to study statistics and computing at the London School of Economics. After a doctorate, she relocated to Kenya with her British husband. The couple and their children now live in Nairobi, where Forster is part of a vibrant literary community that includes Binyavanga Wainaina, winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing.
"You know how you sometimes read books about Paris in the '50s and you think: 'They had such a brilliant time; I wish I'd been alive then'?", Forster says. "Well I happen to feel this is the best time I could possibly be alive in Nairobi. It's amazing, the range of artistic talent."
The starting point for her first novel came from a conversation with a friend: "We were saying: 'Can you imagine what your life would have been like if you hadn't taken this or that step?' I started talking about it with other people I knew, and heard the same thing: at a certain point in people's lives they had made a definite change; their lives went one way instead of the other. I wanted to explore this idea that all of us have a sense of other lives we could have lived.
"Also, I grew up in the Gambia with lots of different kinds of people—I went to school with Muslim girls, with Christian girls; some who came from polygamous marriages, some who didn't. Now when I go back to the Gambia their lives seem to have diverged in so many ways. The novel was also about thinking through the alternatives that happen to people who grow up in exactly the same environment."
The concept offered opportunities to have fun with structure: "I wanted to play around with characters who would be really close friends in one story but not in another, or have the same event happening but the character responding differently."
Ayodele is a self-confident woman, one of Forster's own generation, with good opportunities to study abroad in Europe and America. Yet her options can quickly close down: in one of the narratives she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and eventually makes a pragmatic marriage to become the second wife of an older, polygamous businessman--a move that turns out to be rather successful.
"Life deals out cards to you," Forster says, "and I wanted to see whether Ayodele's personality would change depending on what happened to her—how this strong core of independence might get battered down, or re-emerge. I don't believe that all these polygamous marriages are unhappy. I have friends who grew up in polygamous marriages who got on really well with their half-brothers and sisters and called the other wife 'little mother'. I thought: 'I'm sure there is some way you could work it out', and I wanted to give Ayodele that option."