As a teenager, few works hit me like Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The mind games and layers of anger, grief and love that glued husbands and wives together offered a revelatory window into dysfunctional adult relationships.
Thirty years later, British Nigerian writer Ore Agbaje-Williams' bitterly funny debut novel, "The Three of Us," tapped into similar voyeuristic pleasures for me. Set during one alcohol-soaked day, "Three" focuses on an unnamed husband and wife and the wife's best friend, Temi, all children of Nigerian immigrants.
Married for just three years, the husband and wife both see their marriage as a practical arrangement. The husband admits, "I am probably more in love with my wife than she is with me," although he acts as if the imbalance doesn't bother him. The wife feels their relationship "works perfectly," liberating her from overbearing parents while giving her a husband "for whom the bare minimum was more than enough."
Always in the background of their marriage and, seemingly in their house, is Temi.
Fueled by jealousy of his wife's closeness to her friend and by their laughter at his expense, the husband compares Temi to "a small rash that you leave untreated because you assume it will go away, but then weeks later find that it has covered your entire body." Temi's disdain for him is less personal. While she disparages the way marriage has sapped the wife's verve, she generally believes men are "instruments," evidence "of an anatomical mistake" and "no longer fit for long-term use."
The wife brokers civility between her husband and Temi with some effort, but a new wrinkle disturbs the equilibrium of her marriage — the husband's desire for children. "The truth is that I don't want children," she tells us, though she lets her husband and "a recent (and deeply uncomfortable) conversation with his mother" convince her to swap her birth control for prenatal vitamins.
It's here that Temi feels compelled to step in. She sees only doom in the possible pregnancy and believes of her friend, "There was time for her to be saved, and my role was to be her savior."
Agbaje-Williams' choice to forgo quotation marks is an annoyance. A few times, I found myself having to trace through conversations to figure out who said what. That's a small price to pay, however, for the incisive portraits she creates of her three characters, and for the way the book can serve as a sort of limits-of-friendship Rorschach test for readers.
It's hard to imagine anyone sympathizing with the husband, whose prissiness and lack of self-awareness are both laughable and depressing to think about. But the relationship between Temi and the wife gives us more to consider, especially as Temi brings things to a breaking point with a Molotov cocktail of a lie. It may cost Temi her friend, but in her view, the truths she exposes in its aftermath could save a life.
Vikas Turakhia is an English teacher in Ohio.
The Three of Us
By: Ore Agbaje-Williams.
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 192 pages, $26.