In the End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga review – affirmative autofiction

The British author weighs the worth of a writer’s life in this intimate blend of memoir and fiction

‘An uncynical enterprise’: Musa Okwonga
‘An uncynical enterprise’: Musa Okwonga. Photograph: Creation Company
‘An uncynical enterprise’: Musa Okwonga. Photograph: Creation Company

Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 08.30 EST

Narrated in the second person, this short autobiographical novel follows a black British writer living in Berlin. Dumped over dinner by the woman he loves – before his pizza has even arrived – he finds himself zigzagging between zestless dates and crying himself to sleep. He’s abused by racists online and in the street, and his freelance journalism doesn’t always pay the bills. Added pain comes from the fact that he is about to turn 40 – the age at which his father died in a helicopter crash during the civil war in 80s Uganda.

Okwonga shows how Brexit-era prejudice can seep into the skin. “Look at the way you think about yourself now,” the narrator says: “African. Dark-skinned. Migrant. Fifteen years ago you were simply British.” Sexual rejection leaves him wondering if his face is “too puffy and dark, do I have too much of a paunch?” And the thought of what his father, a noted surgeon, might have made of his career brings despair: “Because what are you? What have you achieved?”

Okwonga is actually a highly regarded author in a variety of genres, but part of what he’s interested in here is how little that can seem to count for, spiritually as well as financially. Even so, when the protagonist points out how poorly he was paid for his most successful articles (“not necessarily those which were most widely shared”, he clarifies, “but those which contributed to the national or even global conversation”), it’s hard not to detect at least a batsqueak of humblebrag.

I’m probably being a teeny bit unfair, though; as the title suggests, this is an uncynical, affirmative enterprise, emphasising the necessity of self-care. Yes, the earnestness did sometimes leave me feeling browbeaten into suppressing doubts over the precise value added by the modishly autofictional form. But it’s also a mark of the heart-swelling intimacy Okwonga generates that, on finishing the book, I was left hoping he hadn’t had too rough a lockdown this past year.

• In the End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga is published by Rough Trade Books (£11.99)

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