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Friday, 19 October 2012

Book Review: Chiga Unigwe's "The Phoenix"

Originally published as De Feniks in Dutch, The Phoenix is Chika Unigwe's first novel, and if I wasn't already sure I was a fan of hers, reading this novel definitely cemented it.

The Phoenix tells the story of Oge, a Nigerian woman, married to a Belgian, living in Belgium. It's told from Oge's point of view so from start to finish we are with Oge - seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels, sharing her highs and lows, her past and her present. 

Early on in the novel you get the feeling that Oge is out-of-place in her new home and this sense of constant loneliness. Even amongst the other Black people she meets in her day to day living in Belguim, she does not feel a connection, as they do not reciprocate her smiles or niceness - they go about their daily existence in Belgium trying to be invisible. As the story goes on, we begin to understand the root of Oge's feeling of "foreignness" and loneliness. In addition to that, Oge is also battling two griefs/losses - one which happened a year ago which she has failed to come to terms with, and the other, a recent addition, which she is struggling to accept. All these combine together to affect not only her, but her marriage. 

In all her novels I've read, I've noticed Chika Unigwe has this ability to transport us back to our main characters previous lives, to give us a glimpse in to who they were, who they knew and how their past experiences may have shaped their present. And in The Phoenix, she doesn't fail. We get glimpses (through Oge's flashbacks) of her life in Enugu (back in Nigeria), the fun times she used to have with friends, including her best friend, Angel, her family, how she met Gunter (her husband), and even her initial experiences in Belguim.

The theme of loneliness and alienation in a foreign land was ever-present and ever-constant. Even when Oge had people around her (like her coffee-drinking friend, Lisa) she still felt alone, different, and foreign. Additionally, Oge is also dealing with a different cultural way - being able to show up unannounced and stay for days, weeks on end at relatives places in Enugu vs having to call in advance and plan for a few hours visit in Belgium - which seems to frustrate her. The lack of community also added to her loneliness. There is also the issue of stereotypes that Oge has to face, with Belgian's she meets having a particular image of "Africa" (the country) that they are not willing to let go - an old lady on the train is adamant Swahili is the only language Africans speak and is unable to fathom that Oge, who claims to be African does not know, or understand Swahili; or a recruiter assuming that Oge, a gradaute of banking and finance, was at the recruitment agency to look for work as a cleaner. 

This is a pretty short novel (183 pages), but it packs a lot. To me what stood out in The Phoenix was how it portrayed the issues of loss and how that can be compounded by feelings of loneliness and alienation in a foreign land. Also, the title of this novel couldn't have been more perfect considering what it's about - dealing with loss and loneliness and accepting it (which to me signified the being burnt and reduced to ashes part of being a phoenix) in order to one day hopefully rise again, a new person (just like the phoenix).

I am not sure if this novel is available outside of Nigeria, Belgium or the Netherlands, but I do hope it is because it's a remarkably wonderful story, and one I woud definitely recommend.

4 out of 5 stars

3 comments:

  1. I can't wait to read this book. The story is something I relate to as an African immigrant in the US. Feeling foreign, lonely and out-of-place are emotions we all struggle with in our new environments. I am anxious to know how Oge deals with all this.

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  2. I read this book a few years ago and really empathised with Oge, the main character. I've since read Chika's other book, "On Black Sister's Street" which is also very good, better written, more complex, much more heart-wrenching. I would recommend that one too.

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  3. Great review! I tried to find this one online and I don't think it's available in the US here... Too bad, since I really loved On Black Sisters Street. GoodReads brought up another book of hers, titled Night Dancer, which also doesn't seem to be available here.

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