tragic tale

In Unigwe’s latest novel, a family’s tragedy is interwoven with Nigeria’s inequities & inequalities

By Toni Kan

Posted on April 18, 2023 09:59

Chika Unigwe’s fifth novel, ‘The Middle Daughter’, plies a trajectory of binaries; good and bad, ugliness and beauty, right and wrong, but boundaries are not delineated. What we have instead are blurry lines and lots of greys, where there should be well-defined boundaries.

Chika Unigwe, award-winning author, former Booker Prize judge, and university professor is at the airport when the call goes through. She pleads for a little time to clear immigration.

“I think that humans are complex and we all inhabit areas of moral ambiguity,” she tells The Africa Report when she is finally settled. “When our interests are at stake, we tend to find ways to argue for things we are against on principle.”

A family unmoored

Set predominantly in Enugu, South East Nigeria, the novel tells the story of Doda’s family made up of himself, Mother, Udodi, Ugo, and Nani – the eponymous middle daughter whose story provides the novel with its haunting and funereal aspect.

This is a tale pock-marked by tragedy with the family’s story intricately interwoven with the story of Nigeria with its inequities and inequalities and corruption in high places. As usual with Chika Unigwe’s novels, some of the stories are so topical they could have been snatched out of the pages of a morning newspaper.

Chika says the novel was triggered by a true life story “where a young woman gets into the kind of relationship Nani does with Ephraim; and for similar reasons, I’m still rooting for that girl. I spoke about my desire for justice. I wanted to right the wrongs done to Persephone and give her a voice, make her in charge of her own story”.

Death and pain are constants beginning with the death of a daughter in America. Udodi’s tragic passing on the eve of her imminent return leaves the family unmoored with things hurtling downhill from that point.

“Udodi’s death was the beginning of the raging storm, but at that moment we thought that the worst had already happened…” Nani says.

Language and an unravelling story

The story of The Middle Daughter is told by multiple voices, with Udodi providing the chorus as both dead daughter and ancestor. Mining Igbo cosmology for gravitas, the novel explores what can happen when a family’s anchor is gone and the ship of their communal destiny is left afloat.

Doda’s death and Mother’s insistence on not letting her in-laws and many others “betting on her to fail” get their wish is the trigger for the cataclysm that eclipses their joy. Mother sets up a business that would bring her enormous wealth, but ultimately puts her at odds with Nani. Ugo is torn between familial and maternal love while Nani, blindsided by grief, falls prey to the machinations of an itinerant preacher.

Nowhere in contemporary African novels has a character suffered such a devastating reversal of fortunes as Nani does in The Middle Daughter.

As the story unravels, none of these characters can retrace their steps to how things used to be. “Even mother who used to carry church on her head no longer went.”

The language of The Middle Daughter is English, but a Nigerian reader will catch the peculiar Nigerian cadence in the sentences as in the one above. What Unigwe has done is express Igbo and Nigerian sensibilities with English words in ways that colonise the language in subliminal ways.

Nani’s story and her fall from grace are at the centre of the novel and in considering her descent into the “underworld” teased at the beginning by the author’s nod to Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, one is reminded of Jeffia Okwe in Ben Okri’s debut novel, Flowers and Shadows. Nowhere in contemporary African novels has a character suffered such a devastating reversal of fortunes as Nani does in The Middle Daughter.

Different readings

Young, naïve, and left incredibly vulnerable by grief, she is seduced by the attentions of Ephraim whose bombastic verbiage is a source of amusement for Nani at the beginning of their friendship. She therefore fails to notice his malevolent intent and by the time she has been drawn into his web, her fear of her mother’s anger and rejection leads her to make a choice that leads her “down to deepest dark”.

Her relationship with Ephraim can be read as a study of the Stockholm Syndrome  phenomenon, while her fraught relationship with her mother riffs on an incipient Electra complex, especially when viewed from the prism of how to mourn or stop mourning Doda.

Unigwe does not agree or disagree with this reading, only saying: “I love that despite my intentions, readers are coming to it with their own readings. That’s one of the wonderful things about reading. We can all read the same title and yet be reading different books.”

However, what persists in the unravelling of the Doda household aside from Ugo’s inability to take sides are the insistent questions: Did Mother do right or wrong? Is Nani right or wrong to remain with Ephraim? Is Ephraim a model father or an abusive husband? Should a mother choose love for children over her happiness?

Unigwe shares her perspective saying: “I hated that the kids loved Ephraim too and somehow even prefer him to their mother, but that’s life, right? Folks can be the worst partners, but still be great parents. We are a multitude of things.”

These questions roil the core of the novel and when Nani finally resurfaces like Persephone or Eurydice, if you will, called forth from Hades by Aunty Enuka’s flute, one is not quite sure whether the story will end happily or not.

The Middle Daughter is published by Canongate Books, April 2023

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