Dr Morayo Da Silva is, for lack of a better phrase, ageing disgracefully. She spent most of her savings on a vintage Porshe, has an emotional attachment to her books and wants to get a tattoo for her 75th birthday. In 118 pages, Manyika is able to create characters so vibrant I feel like I know them. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to The Sun is the story of Dr Morayo Da Silva, a retired professor in English Literature who is fiercely independent, shamelessly single and who has lived many lives; she has been a diplomat’s wife and has built a career in academia. However, her independence is threatened when she trips and falls in her bathroom and has to stay in an old-age home for a few days to recover. While at the home, she is forced to confront her age, her limitations and the dangers that come with old age.
The strength of this small novel isn’t in the story, it’s in Manyika’s writing. Each chapter changes in perspective allowing the reader to get a better understanding of the world around Dr Morayo. Set in San Francisco, the different characters, explore themes like being an immigrant in the US, motherhood, age, mental health and independence. The two characters that stood out the most to me are Sunshine, an Indian-American who cares too much for the people around her and not enough for herself and Reggie whose wife Pearl suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. Other more minor characters are Toussaint, the substitute chef in the Home, a young homeless woman who dreams of going back to university to finish her degree programme and Dawud, the owner of a flower and cake shop Dr Morayo goes to frequently. Manyika’s writing reminds me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth because of her ability to create stories and histories for every character in her novel.
I love a good novella and often refer to them as palette cleansers because after reading a long saga, it’s refreshing to read something concise and focused. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to The Sun is the perfect size, the reader is able to get the satisfaction of reading a story from start to finish while experiencing the lives and histories of different characters, but I will admit that I found it difficult to really get into the novel. The pace of this book is rather slow but I decided to read the entire book because of how much I loved Dr Morayo. Apart from the bits of information she shared about herself, I loved reading what the other characters thought of her. She was the eccentric old lady who wore bright clothes, make up and who talked to everyone, there’s a mystery about her that carries on throughout the novel. It is almost as though there is a disconnect between Dr Morayo and her age. She explains that she often has to act as the old, wise one because that is the role people expect her to play. While at the Home, she sees herself as a young person surrounded by geriatrics and she protests the need to get around with a walker or in a wheel chair.
A more distressing side of ageing is shown through Reggie and Pearl. Pearl is reduced to an infantile state because of her dementia and the people around her are forced to treat her like a child. Reggie shares some information about Pearl like the fact that she loved to read mysteries and romance novels and that she was disowned by her children for choosing to be with Reggie. While Dr Morayo has the privilege of being able to make her own choices, Pearl relies on the people around her and has no say in what happens to her. Staff put makeup on her even if she never wore makeup in the past. While the nurses aren’t looking, Reggie tries to wipe the makeup off because he wants to be true to who he remembers Pearl to be. Dr Morayo finds a companion in Reggie and Pearl and finds that she misses them after she’s left the home. Reggie and Pearl are an example of Manyika’s thoughtful storytelling.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun was worth the labour it took to get through the novella. It was the perfect palette cleanser after Adebayo’s Stay With Me and at many occasions made me smile. I found myself wishing there were a few more pages just so I could spend more time with each of the colourful characters.