A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing: A Memoir Across Three Continents
- By Mary-Alice Daniel
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Gretchen Lida
- January 6, 2023
A lyrical reflection on growing up a “third culture” kid.
If sentence writing were an Olympic sport, Mary-Alice Daniel would be Usain Bolt. The crisp beauty of the author/poet’s prose would seem like showing off if it weren’t effortless to read, as here, when she describes the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Hausa tribe of Nigeria: “Deities are not ever present or everlasting. Gods die. They deceive. Some celestials are more reliably good. The helpmate in childbirth; the gift bearer; and the messenger who heals through happy dreams.”
The entirety of Daniel’s debut memoir, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, is written with this playful yet formal mastery. The book interweaves her coming-of-age story with a brief history of her birth country, Nigeria. It is essential to avoid the phrase “home country” when referring to the author’s relationship with the African nation because her longing for a sense of home is elusive. The question of “Who am I?” is one she asks frequently. Sometimes, it is asked explicitly; other times, it hums just below the surface.
The book roughly covers Daniel’s early life through her late teens, with time jumps scattered throughout. It begins in the 1980s, with her zealously Christian parents fleeing their predominantly Islamic home region with Daniel and her siblings in tow. The family first settles in the United Kingdom, where both mother and father finish their doctorates. When their student visas expire, they once again leave everything they know and move around the United States. Daniel explains that there’s now a term for children like her, who grow up all the way in or all the way out of a place: “Third Culture Kids.”
The mark of a successful memoir is not only that it tells a compelling story but that it resonates with readers and the world they’re living in. In Coastline’s case, two narrative threads echo the zeitgeist. One is the disorienting experience of immigration. The other is the car-swallowing pothole of emptiness where Westerners’ knowledge of Africa should be.
Addressing the latter, Daniel gives us a digestible yet nuanced history of Nigeria, a conglomeration of different tribal lands that the British Empire arbitrarily shoved together and declared a nation. Although Nigerians united for independence from Britain, the splintered factions across language, religion, and tribe make it still today a complicated assemblage of what feels like countries within countries. Daniel has not returned to the land of her birth in a decade.
With its scope and ambition, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing rivals Sarah Broom’s 2019 National Book Award-winning memoir, The Yellow House. The meticulous yet gargantuan amount of research that went into both books gives them delicious breadth and texture. The authors dive deep into their own family histories, carefully documenting stories that would otherwise be lost amid the backdrop of larger events. For Broom, Hurricane Katrina was the storm that destroyed what was left of her crumbling childhood home, but it was also the hook that drew readers in and allowed her to introduce them to the plight of Black New Orleans.
Daniel draws readers in by writing about some of the headline-generating African stories they might already know — including Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram and the infamous “Nigerian Prince” email scam — and then introduces them to a world they might not. In doing so, she shines a light on a diverse place and people that First World readers often view with cartoonish simplicity.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Daniel is too tidy and careful in places. In a good memoir, as the adage goes, everyone — even the author — seems flawed. But mess and complexity are two different things, and while domestic trials and tribulations are duly on display here, there’s not much heft for the first 200 pages. Once the junk drawer of true family drama is finally opened, however, it leads to a narrative every bit as satisfying as Daniel’s poetic sentences. It is well worth the wait.
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer to Horse Network and the Independent and is working on her first book. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.