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Monday, 11 June 2012

Book Review: Chibundu Onuzo's 'The Spider King's Daughter'

'I started writing The Spider King's Daughter when I was 17, got an agent at 18, signed with Faber at 19, finished editing while 20 and got published at 21'. 
          - Chibundu Onuzo

I got this quote from here and before I begin this review I would like to say that that was pretty impressive. At 18, I was at uni and still trying to figure out what I was going to be doing with my life (okay, I am still trying to figure that out), but to hear that at 18 she got an agent and had already started writing her novel - pretty impressive Miss Onuzo. 

I've been dying to read The Spider King's Daughter ever since I heard about it last year, and I finally got my hands on a copy a couple of weeks ago. 

The Spider King's Daughter is Abike Johnson, a 17-year old rich girl living the idyllic, wealthy life in Lagos. Her father, the Spider King himself, is Mr. Olumide Johnson, a tycoon who has his hands in many businesses in Nigeria - oil, music, insurance - you name it. Abike is the heir to the Johnson throne. On the other side of town living in Mile 12 is Runner G , a street hawker selling ice-cream on the roads of Lagos. He had to drop out of school after his father's death and he supports his younger sister (who he makes sure is still going to school) and his depressed mother. One day, while being driven home from school, Abike spots the handsome Runner G, who seems out of place in this hawking world. They get to know each other, an unlikely friendship, and then romance blossoms. Both have secrets, and both want to know what the other is hiding. Abike wants to know why her hawker speaks so well, why he doesn't carry himself like a poor person, what must have happened? Runner G wants to know why this rich girl has taken an interest in him, and as they get to know each other, what is so special about the Johnson's, and particularly Mr. Johnson (the Spider King himself)? How could they afford to lead such opulent lives in Lagos, where the income disparities are so wide? Eventually, we discover the secrets, especially Mr. Johnson's, and Abike and Runner G's relationship is affected by it. The story is told from both Abike and Runner G's perspective, so we are never really in doubt of what the other is thinking and we get both characters perspective of the exact same situation. There are also secondary characters like Mr.T, Runner G's armless, homeless friend and Mrs. Precious, the struggling shopowner in Runner G's part of town.

I have to say in parts I really felt like I was reading a Nollywood (the Nigerian movie industry) movie. I also have to say I didn't like Abike. She was a  mean girl - selfish and manipulative, she was rich and wealthy, she could have anything she wanted, and she knew it. She didn't particularly treat her workers well - her driver, Hassan, the security guards in the house and even her maid Aunty Grace. There were glimmers of hope in her, but in general she wasn't very likeable. I was so-so with Runner G. He was  a lot more likeable than Abike - he became the man of the house after his father passed away, he gave up his education and childhood to support his family, he was aware of his flaws and his weaknesses. My only issue was that I didn't particularly like the fact that the rich girl was this conniving, manipulative, mean girl and the poor boy, was this kind, caring, handsome gentleman.  

What I did love about the novel was its setting in Lagos, and particularly the way in which Lagos was described. Even more than that I loved the portrayal of a street hawker's life, and the informal economy (for example, the men and women who work as hawkers, like Runner G, selling his ice-cream). And I love the way she wrote about the hierarchy of workers, not only of the products that were sold, but even the gender hierarchy of street vendors: 

'The recharge card men are the undisputed leaders of our group ... Next come those who sell the unusual: framed photographs of past presidents, pots, bed sheets, crockery. Then the food sellers of which there is a hierarchy: ice-cream sellers with sacks, foreign sweets, foreign fruits and right at the bottom of the list, anything local: boiled peanuts, scraped oranges, plantain chips. These local things were mostly for women, though sometimes a man who had fallen on hard times could find himself with a tray of groundnuts balanced on his head'.

Those hawkers, there when you need something - recharge cards for your mobile, something to eat or drink, a fake Rolex watch, but also there when you don't - constantly touting their goods from the window of your car. I also loved the description of Mile 12, the surroundings in which the hawkers and most of the urban poor in Lagos live in, Tejuosho market, and Abike's danfo (commercial mini-buses) and Mama Put (local establishment where you can get Nigerian food at very affordable prices) experiences. I also loved the bit when Abike went to visit Runner G and was waiting for him on the side of the road wearing a mini-skirt and being leered at, called a prostitute, and even propositioned. In many African countries, there is a belief that "proper girls" don't wear mini-skirts (or tight clothes in general). I liked the inclusion of that in the book (even if it was only a very small part of the book) because I think policing women's dress, and the views of women in "inappropriate" attire is a serious issue. Abike's naivety at being shocked that people would see her as loose because she was wearing a mini-skirt, initially shocked me because any girl who grew up in Nigeria was probably told many times (like I was quite a few times) that good girls dress modestly. But with time I realised it probably just showed what a sheltered life Abike lived to not know the common reaction to wearing a miniskirt or having never been to a market. 

To me the strength ofThe Spider King's Daughter lies in its portrayal of Lagos, the informal economy, the class divide, but also the hierarchies that exist in both sides of society. You may think that it's only the "haves" that have a hierarchy, with Mr. Johnson obviously being on top, but the have-nots also have one too - with Runner G, being somewhere in the middle. It's also simply written and I do like the fact that both characters narrated. It was also pretty quick to read.

3.5 out of 5 stars (a promising debut)

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