Another captivating factor is the friendship between the protagonists - Abu and Karl - who are introduced to the reader as being “like twins.” From the moment the reader encounters the boys till the end of the novel, there is a sweetness to this relationship. This may be because friendship between boys, especially teenage boys, is often not presented, in literature, with the tenderness that the author gives in fleshing out Karl and Abu’s relationship.
Popoola reiterates the tenders parts of this friendship by spotlighting the familial bonds the boys have been able to develop. By informing the reader that Abu’s “mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother”, the reader is made aware of all the ways that their friendship has been legitimised. That the father is complicit in accepting Karl to familial status shows just how much time Karl spends with Abu’s family.
Karl’s “more, in[s] than out[s]” of Abu’s flat, is later understood when the reader learns of his mother’s ailment, which leaves him in the care of a very on-hand social worker - Godfrey. His father, on the other hand, is unknown to him, as his mother never revealed his father’s identity to him. Despite the closeness that follows the two boys, the routine to their relationship is prominent.
For Abu, silence covers up the things that hurt whilst Karl favours speaking to mask the pain. These dynamics are exemplified when Karl takes the trip to Port Harcourt, Nigeria in the search of his father, without confronting or informing his mother. On arriving the Niger Delta, Karl encounters complexities, which compounded by his youthfulness and lack of experience facing difficult conversation, causes him to play conversation-coward. This, coupled with Abu’s brooding silence, leads to a communication breakdown that impacts the fluidity of their relationship.
As a metaphor for both silence and fuller conversation, the novel’s title When We Speak of Nothing encapsulates the positions both boys take to avoid dealing with weighty issues. The boys, through Blackberry Messages (BBM) and patchy international calls from make-shift phone booths, nonetheless, try to navigate the emotionally trying time in their relationship. Watching (or reading) this unfold, one is, quickly reminded that technology, in its wonder, is still unable to answer to the complexities of humanity.