A wasteman is a guy who wastes a woman’s time, energy, and purpose.
“They sell us dreams and then take them away,” explained Kiki Banjo in Bolu Babalola’s playful debut novel, “Honey and Spice.” “They’re bad at communication, texting us good morning every day and then leaving us in the cold of blue ticks when we ask them where they’re at, leading to us jumping to conclusions, and let me tell you, that kind of cardio isn’t good for our hearts.”
As the campus love advice guru, Kiki warns the Black women of Whitewell College to stay away from transfer student Malakai Korede. She denounces him as “the Wasteman of Whitewell” on her popular radio show, “Brown Sugar,” less than a week before she unexpectedly makes out with him at a party. This move puts her show ratings — and by extension her spot in a competitive summer pop media internship program at NYU — in jeopardy. In an attempt to salvage both their reputations and bolster their respective creative projects, they start fake dating.
Set in Southern England at a predominately white liberal arts university, “Honey and Spice,” is told from Kiki’s point of view. She’s a sophomore, fundamentally uninterested in love after some past trauma. The prose reflects her youth and generation, interspersed with text message bubbles, transcripts from other campus gossip webcasts/blogs, and archives from “Brown Sugar.”
Malakai is an “evolved” player. From the jump, Kiki can see he’s smooth, has learned to take selfies that don’t inspire one to “quickly rush to say ‘He’s better in person’,” and has a smart sense of humor. In his short time at the college, he’s managed to date girls from every clique in the school’s African-Caribbean population (“Blackwell”). His actions inspire a “bloodbath in the Brown Sugar comments section.” Whether he’s going out with Vegan Cupcakes or Bible Study Babes, two things are consistent: He’s not looking for anything serious and doesn’t communicate this well.
When he’s not breaking hearts, Malakai is a film student working on a project about young couples. He hopes to enter it into a competition in an attempt to impress his father, who isn’t supportive of his aspirations. Malakai may have effortless swagger but it’s his vulnerability and moments of earnestness that endear him to Kiki.
The social dynamics can make the book feel like a high school rom-com at times—the drive to get into a program at NYU is reminiscent of many high school protagonists’ attempts to get into selective colleges. But it’s a good reminder that the instability and grind of seeking out the next big opportunity that one experiences in high school doesn’t stop when people get to college.
Fans of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” will appreciate the way Babalola deftly manipulates familiar romance tropes into an expertly crafted story that offers a glimpse into the British Nigerian college experience. Through Babalola’s careful writing, high school-esque cliques meet the complexity of Blackwell Society politics.
The fake dating isn’t as important to the plot as the work Kiki and Malakai do while pretending to be in a relationship. She helps him refine his film and becomes a character within it, providing her voice and personality to anchor the story. For his part, Malakai cohosts “Brown Sugar.” Their new segment, “Gotta Hear Both Sides,” is a radio reality program about the world of dating which Kiki hopes to submit as her project for the NYU application.
Refreshingly, the course of their (fake) relationship draws them closer to Blackwell Society and their friends rather than isolating the couple. Kiki moves from being a “weird floater who judges … from the outside” via radio to an active member of the community who uses her platform to advocate for positive change. She even befriends Shanti and Chioma, two girls we’re first introduced to when they’re telling off Malakai at the party that started it all.
Even without the romance driving the plot, “Honey and Spice” would be a rich text full of incisive social commentary, but I’d be remiss not to mention that Kiki and Malakai are a couple you’ll want to root for. Babalola captures the messiness of falling in love for the first time. Both of them have baggage to work through, and they help each other do that over plantain waffles and parties. The dating might start out fake, but the chemistry is real.
HONEY AND SPICE
By Bolu Babalola
William Morrow, 368 pages, $28