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Yomi Adegoke’s debut novel The List is a multi-layered study of sexual politics and the power of the internet.
The List is any working person’s nightmare and one that seems more and more likely in an era when it seems social media can destroy you overnight. The best-selling novel by Yomi Adegoke – her first – is also a study in the complex, messy, confused sexual politics of the post #MeToo world.
It tells the tale of Ola Olajide, a senior journalist on a feminist magazine, and her fiance Michael Koranteng. Just 26 days before their wedding a list of alleged male abusers in the media is dropped on Twitter. Michael’s name is on it.
Ola is asked to investigate. She had previously done a similar feature on male abusers in the music industry. As the novel unfolds the list causes untold destruction to Ola and Michael’s lives – Michael, who has just started a new dream job [hired as a PR exercise by a company that had been accused of racism and later dropped after finding itself in a sexism storm], is besieged with messages, is put on leave and eventually sacked, with the whole experience stirring deep-rooted insecurities and depression. There are suggestions of racism too – is Michael more a target because he is a successful black man in the media, which is not exactly renowned for its diversity?
The list, although it disappears from Twitter within 24 hours, spawns countless vicious discussions on different social media channels. Michael denies the allegation against him. Ola doesn’t know who to believe. Caught, on the one hand, between her feminist instincts to believe women who accuse men of abuse and suggestions of hypocrisy [it is suggested that she is treated more harshly by social media agitators than Michael because of her feminist status] and her love for Michael on the other, her self-esteem goes into free fall.
The book culminates with Ola and Michael’s lavish wedding, which has been carefully stage managed with a social media hashtag. The social media coverage gets hacked and the abuse allegations break through the underground gossip sites and into the open, creating havoc. Ola is called in by her boss. She thinks she will be sacked for supporting an abuser, but instead her ambitious boss, spotting an opportunity, asks her to write her side of the story. Ola quits, but imagines any future employer in the media will only hire her in order to cash in on the scandal. In the meantime, a footballer on the list who is accused of homophobia but turns out to be gay commits suicide while others on the list who are actual abusers get off virtually scot-free.
The novel is multi-layered and there are many twists and turns along the way. Every character is a study in human complexity. There are no easy answers. It turns out that while Michael didn’t do what he was accused of on the list, he has not always treated women well and for most of the novel we are led to believe it is a jilted lover, who he had an on-off affair with while he was with Ola [the second time via sexting, which he tries to convince himself is not the same thing as being physically unfaithful], who is behind his inclusion on it. The end is the ultimate #MeToo twist: it turns out that Michael’s accuser is in fact a man.
Every aspect of sexual politics is examined, including previous incarnations represented by Michale and Ola’s parents and the general sexual culture. Ola, whose previous relationships are described as “a pattern of co-dependency and self-sabotage”, compares her and her mother and women who had to put up with their husbands having multiple affairs or with loveless marriages. Was she the same if he excused Michael?
At one point Michael recalls being accused of being a user at university by a woman ‘friend with benefits’. He muses: “But what did that even mean, a ‘user’? He never asked her for anything, was never intentionally cruel, What was the line between a user and, well, an emotional abuser? Between an emotional abuser and an immature teenager boy or man in his early twenties? Perhaps there wasn’t one and that was the problem?”
The book also points out the hypocrisy of sexism with men on the list bemoaning gold-diggers, but wanting to be the breadwinners. But feminists don’t get off lightly either. When Ola goes to meet the person who posted the list – an Observer journalist – in a women’s club she reflects on her surroundings – a kiosk selling branded baby-related merchandise, pink marble floor, a neon sign depicting Venus, a make-up room and a gym – as follows: “It was funny…how feminism had swung to now meet patriarchy in the middle, seemingly agreeing that what women wanted was everything to be pink and focused on making them look good.”
The anonymous social media activists are a study in mob power. The wedding hashtag campaign is compared to the actions of a terrorist organisation and it is suggested that there is no difference between those calling for the harshest punishments for Ola and Michael and those calling for more grace on the internet. It’s all part of the same milieu we are all swimming in.
The book is definitely a page turner – it’s hard to put it down, but it is more than that. It grapples which hugely complex, topical issues and it feels very relevant and thought-provoking on many different levels. Expect more to come from Yomi Adegoke.
*The List by Yomi Adegoke is published by 4th Estate, price £14.99 hardback.