In Review

One of Them by Musa Okwonga

The British writer gives a refreshingly ‘nuanced‘ account of his time as a black pupil at Eton in the 1990s

“The literary micro-genre of Eton memoirs by black former pupils has doubled in size,” said Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT. Fifty years ago, Dillibe Onyeama’s N****r at Eton caused the Nigerian writer to be banned from ever returning to the school. Now comes Musa Okwonga’s One of Them, which describes his time at Eton in the 1990s.

The son of Ugandan immigrants, Okwonga grew up in a working-class suburb in west London and became obsessed with Eton aged 11, after watching a documentary about it. Two years later he won a half-scholarship, and found himself “among a small minority of black pupils”, rubbing shoulders with the likes of princes William and Harry. His “nuanced” account of the school, while not entirely uncritical, is unlikely to lead to a ban: the place, he reports, made him feel safe, and he flourished academically under “nurturing teachers”.

One of Them is “such a good advert” for Eton that at one point I paused to look up the fees, “momentarily forgetting I didn’t have a spare £14,000 to burn every term”, said Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. This is a “richly observed book, packed with elegant descriptions’’ – and written in effortlessly graceful prose.

The book does not “reveal a sordid hotbed of racism and elitism”, said Maighna Nanu in The Daily Telegraph. But Okwonga recalls the “diffidence and caution” he felt obliged to display “as a black man in an institution that exudes white privilege”, as well as the occasional, painful episodes of racism. More broadly, he criticises the school’s narrow “parameters for success”, which he still feels bad about having failed to meet: marriage (to a woman), children, “and a high-paying banking job”. Poetic and intelligent, this is a balanced and “complex” account of being an outsider in the ultimate insider’s institution.

Unbound 224pp £8.99; The Week Bookshop £6.99

One of Them cover
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