Enduring grief in Enugu

Chika Unigwe’s novel, 'The Middle Daughter,' reimagines a Greek myth within a contemporary Nigerian context and develops it into a gripping family saga.

Image credit Canonim via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Despite being billed as a retelling of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, The Middle Daughter—the latest novel by Nigerian author Chika Unigweis more than just another classic tale adapted to the 21st century. Unigwe reimagines the story of Persephone’s captive life in the mythological underworld by translating it to a post-2000 Enugu, Nigeria, drawing on an archetype of an abusive relationship that she then develops into an entirely original and gripping exploration of grief, suffering, endurance, and tenacity.

Unigwe, who writes in both English and Dutch, is the author of four other novels including the Nigeria-Prize-winning On Black Sisters Street (2009) and De zwarte messias (2013), a rewrite of the epic of Gustavus Vassa (a.k.a. Olaudah Equiano) that has yet to be released in English. A writer, scholar, and Assistant Professor in the English department at Georgia College and State University, Unigwe moved to Belgium with her Dutch husband upon graduating from university in Nsukka in 1995, going on to earn an M.A. at the Catholic University of Leuven and then a PhD at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. Her background is reflected in many of her novels’ characters who reside in or visit West Africa, Europe, and the US. The Middle Daughter, for example, is set in Unigwe’s place of birth, Enugu, and offers brief glimpses into life in the US.

Following an introductory origin myth from the novel’s ancestral chorus, Unigwe shocks her reader with an opening line from protagonist, Nani: “I fear the man who is my husband.”After the sudden deaths of her elder sister and father within the space of two years, a distraught and lonely Nani is quasi-courted by the itinerant preacher Ephraim. The clear villain of the story, Ephraim tricks Nani into a presumed sense of safety before raping her in his home and entrapping her into marriage via the ensuing pregnancy and the pressure Nani feels to keep what has happened a secret.

The Middle Daughter offers Nani’s first-person account of these events as she narrates retrospectively, detailing how she comes to be held captive by both Ephraim and societal stigma. Similar to the captivating structure and temporal play of On Black Sisters Street, wherein the puzzle and thrill of the opening scene is returned to only toward the conclusion of the novel, The Middle Daughter returns to Nani’s present about three-quarters of the way through the book, having laid the traumatic foundations for her attempted escape and search for freedom in the prior chapters.

Despite feeling alone in Ephraim’s home Nani is not alone as she narrates. Her younger sister Ugo and older, deceased sister Udodi, as well as Ephraim, narrate alongside her providing their perspectives at sporadic moments in the story. The omniscience of Udodi as the ancestral chorus and Nani as narrating from the future for much of the novel facilitates a profound sense of inevitability and inescapability, anchoring Nani in a seemingly agentless role as both she and the reader passively witness the events that lead to her captivity.

Unigwe positions the reader into the same paralyzing perspective as Udodi who, from the afterlife, laments her ability to see the future as she remains powerless to do anything to change it:

I can do nothing but watch as the unraveling begins,

         as the flowers that once flourished wither

and a drought visits [Nani’s] world and drags her into the

         darkness below

While the inevitability of Nani’s unraveling becomes a focal point of the novel, at no point does Unigwe’s writing become dull or painfully predictable. Indeed, the knowledge we become prematurely privy to paradoxically builds the suspense of the narrative for, as Udodi elucidates later on, “even when you know the end, the how eludes you still.” The reader’s thirst for this “how” rushes them through Nani’s tale, eager to resolve how the girl who grew up with the affordances of an upper-middle class family and US citizenship, and who once had concrete plans to follow her sister abroad, struggles to escape from the home of the man she fears.

The solution to this riddle lies partially in the foreshadowing itself. The reader’s privileged knowledge encourages them to make assumptions and predictions about characters before we meet them and actions before they take place. We anticipate Ephraim’s reprehensibility, for instance, based on the details Nani reveals to us before she describes meeting him for the first time. In an uncannily similar way, Nani assumes how her mother and others will react to the news that she has been raped and impregnated by Ephraim based on their past actions and behavior. Nani is well aware of the fact that her mother previously spoke of a survivor of rape as having “asked for it” because the violence took place in a boy’s bedroom , just as Nani is aware that the congregation within Ephraim’s church will side with him and either ridicule her or conclude that she is possessed and in need of divine intervention were she to reveal the sins, crimes, and horrors Ephraim has committed. Aware of how society constantly blames the woman in her situation, she feels pressured to remain silent, swallowing her pain and trauma without seeking help because she has foreseen what will happen to her should she resist. Through foreshadowing, Unigwe coaxes the reader into a perspective whereby, just as Nani sees it, “everything in Heaven and on Earth is ordained,” (to quote Ephraim), and we are hopeless to do anything to change it. It is only once Nani begins to narrate in the present tense and do away with foreshadowing—within the last 30 pages of the novel—that Nani’s escape from captivity feels truely possible.

Given the somber content of The Middle Daughter, Unigwe avoids indulging “abuse-porn” for her readers, vying to “neither glorif[y] nor trivializ[e]” the dark subject matter of the novel. While she is no stranger to difficult themes—On Black Sisters Street elegantly explores the informal economies of sex work and human trafficking in Europe—The Middle Daughter feels as if it might be intended for a more wide-ranging, popular audience than her previous work. Much of the most shocking violence in the novel is revealed in hindsight through marks on Nani’s body. The result is a delicately heart-wrenching account of a woman who struggles to give voice to what she has experienced.

A page-turning read with great pacing, The Middle Daughter will appeal to readers interested in issues of power, voicelessness, and survival as they relate to interpersonal relationships. Unigwe resists the bleakness of endings in classic Nigerian works such as Joys of Motherhood or Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and even her own On Black Sisters Street.

Another contentious topic within the novel is in its portrayal of the minor character, Philo. A female neighbor of Nani’s and Ephraim’s, and one of the only people to acknowledge to Nani the gravity and pain of her situation, Philo has the potential to be one of the novel’s most powerful and inspiring characters. Philo, who stands out for refusing to watch as Nani is dragged across the compound by Ephraim while other women snicker, confides in and supports Nani in a pivotal scene: she laments, “this is the problem we have as women: we do not talk enough about what we suffer.” Yet, Philo barely features in the rest of the story and it’s difficult to shirk the feeling that she, one ofthe only visibly disabled characters in the story, is little more than a convenient plot device. Almost always identified as “the woman with one good eye,” Philo is reduced to her disability in a move that also makes a value judgment the goodness/badness of eyesight. The trope of the all-seeing/all-knowing vision-impaired character has long problematically framed disability as metaphor in literature, as Ato Quayson argues in Aesthetic Nervousness. By deploying disability for its symbolic potential, a writer negates the lived experience of people with disabilities and reaffirms antiquated tropes. While Philo features only briefly in The Middle Daughter, she is a character who the reader wants to love and celebrate but in so doing perpetuates harmful stereotypes surrounding bodily differences.

Despite this, The Middle Daughter offers a captivating exploration of grief and vulnerability from the first pages, beginning with the remarkably poignant vignette of a family in grief as Nani’s family wakes to the news that oldest daughter Udodi has died. Her death, which is followed two years later by the father’s, hails “the beginning of the raging storm” that Nani will endure for the rest of the novel. Losing both her elder sister and father so early into the story, two of the people who make possible her identity as both middle and daughter, establishes a pattern of loss to come with the arrival of Ephraim.

To accompany Nani on her journey is to read firsthand of her fierce battle of endurance against a “Grief [which] never ends but loses its rawness.”

Further Reading

The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.