Chibundu Onuzo’s debut was a literary event. Just 19 she had written a novel before 20 and she was an undergrad at an elite British institution; King’s College.
What was there not to like and envy.
Her book, The Spider King’s Daughter, has a cinematic sweep and works on different levels. The narration is relayed by two voices. There is a Romeo and Juliet/star crossed lovers feel to the narrative even if that tension is not apparent to the two youngsters at the beginning.
The narrative voices function like two camera’s allowing two different perspectives on the same issues; the same scenes, the same actions where it involves the major characters, Abike Johnson, scion of the wealthy Johnson dynasty and Runner G aka The Hawker, son of Emmanuel Toyosi Sodipo.
Their encounter and ensuing love story is as preposterous as they come but in Lagos everything is possible. The novel is a Lagos novel, and even though the city is not upfront and centre, we catch glimpses and whiffs from intervals.
It is a fictional and imagined Lagos in many respects one in which there are bridges called Abe Bridge even though we know that the Sodipo’s once lived in Maryland before moving to Mile 12; two very real locales.
There is, in the story of Runner G and his family’s fall from grace, strong echoes of the work of another Nigerian writer who has become a force in world literature whose debut novel was written when he was 19 years old. I refer to Ben Okri’s Flowers and Shadows in which 18-year-old Jeffia Okwe becomes the bread winner of his family after his crooked father dies in a car crash that ends with his car going up in flames and his mother falling into depression.
The details of Chibundu Onuzo’s story are quite different but the similarities are worth noting considering their ages and circumstances; 19 and recently moved to the UK. In Okri’s novel, Jeffia and his mum move to some slum and Jeffia does hook up with a young woman whose father had been made to go to jail by Jeffia’s father.
In Onuzo’s book; Runner G, his mum and his sister are forced to move to a slum following the death of their father while their mother falls into depression. He also falls in love with the daughter of a man who may or may not have killed his father.
Onuzo’s story is set in Lagos but it is obvious that she is not very familiar with Lagos so she resorts to the imagination and embellishment with stock characters like Nkem, the wedding planner; Tayo, the French speaking fashion designer and one dimensional area and street boys who do nothing but cause trouble, smoke Indian hemp and harass young women. Lagos is not so clean cut, but there is a pleasing cinematic sweep to the narrative which propels the narrative on a fast pace taking us on a journey across a Lagos that is mostly in the background.
Where we question the hooking up of these two completely different characters, we would be reminded that Abike Johnson despite her protestations at the end that “I am not my father” is indeed her father’s daughter, one who, always, gets what she wants.
Runner G is a fascinating character; young, idealistic and conflicted about his father, we see him at the beginning of the novel describing his father in a very unflattering way “He was a bad speaker, rarely went to court and had a squint from reading the small print of contracts.” (p.9)
His father is a diffident young man who slaved away his life trying to provide for his nuclear and extended family while leading a good, corrupt-free life, an idealistic aspiration that costs him his life and earns him his son’s scorn but as the book progresses the son realizes that he has been wrong all along about his own father which makes for irony.
As one reads this debut novel, one wrestles with the question; would it have helped if this book were marketed at younger readers? Is this really adult fiction? Does it hold up convincingly? The story is interesting, the narrative style is gripping but something just doesn’t seem to add up.
First is a seeming lack of grasp of the locale and even the nuances and tonalities of speech.
On page 100, the Mama Put asks Runner G “You na don finish? You no want meat?”
The sparring between daughter and father sometimes has an unctuous feel to it, something almost incestuous.
When Abike’s mother descends the steps to meet her, we read: “She rested her hand on the banister and began to glide down, eyes trained on hidden cameras filming her descent.” (p.163)
If there are hidden cameras how come Runner G could prowl all over the mansion without getting caught or seen? And how could he have carried out his plans without being detected?
And then Hassan is said to have been executed by firing squad for murder. This is so anachronistic and unforgivable in a book set so clearly in the Noughties or at least in the present and with an aunt who helped with legal research. No Nigerian has been killed by firing squad since the eighties and even then not for murder.
When Auntie Precious talks to Runner G about their young lawyer who died, we know instinctively that she is referring to Runner G’s father but the boy is clueless.
There is much in this book that is contrived and it is important to explain since so much about fiction consists of plotting but then in seeking for verisimilitude, one must delineate coincidence from contriving. When Runner G meets with Auntie Precious and it turns out that both of them have been dealt a bad hand by Olumide Johnson, one could put it down to coincidence. But when Mr. T enters the picture the contrived plot thickens.
Lagos is a city of over 15 million people and to somehow bring three disparate people together in an intricate web spun by an evil rich man somehow seems very preposterous.
The Spider King’s Daughter is a coming of age tale that tackles bigger issues than the fledgling love story between two people from different ends of the track which is at the centre of the book. There is the concern with corruption in high places, HIV/AIDs, destitution, human trafficking etc.
Ms Onuzo’s writing is delightsome when she is weaving the plot and dropping subtle hints which even though they register on the reader go almost unnoticed by the characters, some sort of heightened dramatic irony.
The end of the novel, however, seems forced, almost juvenile in the pool side confrontation between Runner G, Abike and Olumide Johnson. But then this being a first novel by a young woman, the blame should go to her editor and publishers. This fine book did not deserve such a melodramatic denouement.