ONE of the greatest pleasures of reading is discovering a writer for the first time and being completely overwhelmed by their work.
I had heard a lot about the Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe but had never read anything by her before. Then, recently, I got my hands on her latest novel, The Middle Daughter. What a delightful reading experience! Tragicomic. Disillusioning. Hopeful. Recognisable scenarios of extremes that simultaneously unsettled and invigorated my African heart.
Through her books, Unigwe, who lived in Belgium for a long time, gives a voice to immigrant women from Africa, women who would otherwise not be heard. Her first novel, The Phoenix (2007), originally published in Dutch as De Fenix, tells the story of a young Nigerian's struggle to fit into a Flemish community with whom she has only superficial interactions. Her second novel, On Black Sisters Street (2019), which was also initially published in Dutch, is about black sex workers who must earn their living in Antwerp's red-light district, ruled over by a sadistic pimp.
In The Middle Daughter, this corrupt, cruel character returns in the form of a lay preacher, Ephraim. A so-called man of God. A pimp for Jesus. A wolf in sheep's clothing. The embodiment of the narrow-minded, self-righteous Christian who thinks he has the right to judge others; so that the reader, alongside the main character, Nani, wishes for him to be punished by “an eternal cycle of hot diarrhoea that scalded his buttocks".
A mom called Superstar
Nani, her two sisters and her parents live with a loyal housekeeper they call “Aunty" in a luxurious gated community in the eastern Nigerian city of Enugu. They are privileged and indulge in extravagant parties. The three daughters are spoiled, vain and a bit conceited. They refer to their mother as “Superstar" because, like their idol Tina Turner, she is well-known, attractive and emotionally strong. Their father, Doda, who dotes on the four women in his life, is eccentric and enlightened.
Then Nani's oldest sister, Udodi, leaves to study in America, where she dies in a car accident. Overnight, their lives are turned upside down. Nani, the middle child referenced in the title, embarks on a hunger strike and locks herself in her room. Her younger sister, Ugo, starts wearing short dresses and makeup and sneaks out to wild parties at night. Their mother insists she has suffered the greatest loss and that no one else has the right to grieve. As a result, their father mourns the death of his oldest child silently behind closed doors. Ultimately, suppressed sorrow leads to his terminal illness.
Gloom seeps through the walls of the house. Even when there are moments of joy, there is an “undertow of joylessness", and when Aunty prepares one of her special dishes, the fragrances of spices mix with sadness. Ephraim, who calls himself a “robot in the hands of God", offers Nani a shoulder to cry on. He invites her to a prayer session at the Apostolic Church of Jesus and His Twelve Disciples Keeping Us Safe in the Ark, and forces her to marry him in the cruellest way imaginable. Her carefree youth is shattered and she enters into a hell of abuse, the only light in her life being her three children — Holy, Godsown and PraiseHim. The only way Nani can endure her ordeal is by envisioning an alternative world in which her sister and father are still alive, and where she never met Ephraim; a world where she goes to study in America to become a doctor.
Can Nani escape this dire situation? Will her mother and sister support her? Will Nani lose her children in the process? Will Ephraim meet his end? What chance does a woman have in a world dominated by narcissistic, Bible-thumping men? These are the questions that confront the reader as the suspense intensifies until the end of the book. .
The Middle Daughter is primarily told from Nani's perspective, but other characters take turns to provide their perspectives. Thus, the reader observes events through the eyes of Nani, Ugo, Ephraim and even Udodi, Nani's deceased sister. These narratives are skillfully intertwined with Nigerian proverbs, poems, folk tales, myths and songs.
Another strength of this novel is its multifaceted nature, as it allows the reader to examine events from postcolonial, psychoanalytic and feminist viewpoints. The last perspective is particularly relevant to Unigwe's novel, as the writer delves into evils that predominantly involve women: rape, gender-based violence, human trafficking, occupational inequality and sexual exploitation.
“Dead, deader, deadest" — this is how one of the characters describes her trauma when she is raped then accused by her rapist of having provoked him, of it being her fault. In the environment where Nani grows up, rape was “a sharp, black word that darkened rooms and sucked the air out of everything [...] and was therefore a word which must be hidden". But this unutterable word “fills the house and swirls around like dust to enter every crevice".
Trauma is not a burden that should be carried alone. These are the wise words of one of Nani's neighbours. Women should share their suffering with each other and talk about it: “If we do not talk, how can we get help, eh? It is only a fellow human being who can be your chi. God is not going to descend from the clouds and fight our human battles for us."
The Middle Daughter is about the bond between women, a sisterhood that transcends boundaries. The novel puts the reader directly in the shoes of an abused woman, making you keenly aware of how difficult it is to escape a toxic relationship that has shattered you emotionally. It prompts the reader to view with new eyes women's reproductive rights and so-called “baby factories" where vulnerable women sell their children to wealthy couples.
The image on the cover of three pink roses against a sea-green background evokes the kind of wallpaper you would expect in a young teenage girl's bedroom. The three roses not only represent the three sisters (“Doda's roses") in Unigwe's novel, but serve as a symbol of innocence and budding sexuality. The presence of roses in the once happy family's front yard indeed plays an important role in The Middle Daughter.
The roses bloomed a beautiful, healthy red. We called them Doda’s roses because when we were young, whenever any of us was having a bad day [...] Doda would give us a rose and say it was his heart. For a long time I imagined Doda’s heart beating red and rose-shaped inside him.
When Nani withers, the roses wither. And when Nani is absent, the roses are also absent, even in the garden of the house in America where her mother and sister later live. While Nani is held captive by her husband, she wilts like a rose, losing her beauty, and the perfection of her former life crumbles like withered petals.
Chika Unigwe's prose is beautifully poetic and delicate, without ever becoming showy. Read this book and be overwhelmed by beauty amid a raw reality.
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you!