March 2012

Margaret Howie


The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo

In The Spider King's Daughter, Abikẹ Johnson is a Nigerian Heather, the Mean Girl who rules with strategies worthy of Lady MacBeth. She has learned these dark arts from her father, a self-made businessman with extensive interests throughout Lagos. He is ruthless with his favored daughter, who thinks of his cruelty as lessons, "a game called Frustration."

Frustration is the battle of wills between them, something more than just browbeating or lectures, an ongoing sparring match. In the opening scene, Mr. Johnson sets up her pet dog to be run over by her personal driver. Abikẹ watches on impassively, refusing to lose ground, instead giving the order for the animal to be run over again until it dies at her feet. She is ten years old.

The Lagos she grows up in is one that as a wealthy teenage girl she teeters at the top of a strict hierarchy. It is a city where people can fall sharply from social visibility, and one street hawker, called Runner G, knows the velocity of the drop. He peddles ice cream from the side of the road to support his younger sister, Jokẹ, and their depressed mother, after the devastating death of his father. Their home in Mile Twelve is on the precipice of the poverty line. Since moving there, he has had to teach Jokẹ not to peel yams "like we still had money." He has few friends, aside from Mr. T, a homeless man who waves an arm ending in a pus-ridden stump at passers-by. Unlike Runner G, he is all too open with his stories and is eager to share the grim tale behind the loss of his hand.

On the street, Runner G finds that there are delineations between the other hawkers, as clearly marked as the ones in Abikẹ's elite high school where they boast about choosing a place at Harvard or MIT. Whether you sell phone cards or food, or beg or run a protection scheme, everyone has a place.

It's Abikẹ who pulls him out from his, blurring the lines that circle around both of their lives. They meet when her boredom with her gilded cage and the easy pickings of her classmates compel her to commit a tiny violation of the social code. She buys an ice cream from the side of the street. Sitting in the comfort of her chauffeured car, she watches the boy selling it to her. Some untouched part of her is pulled to him, no matter what her snobbish attitude displays. She detects the lost privilege in Runner G's voice, assessing the handsome young man, and thinks, "the label 'used to be rich' hangs from everything that concerns him." But as Abikẹ continues to meet up with Runner G, she stops playing Frustration and allows herself to slowly fall.

With a mannered interior voice that as arch and ponderous as any other precocious teenage girl, Abikẹ unwittingly becomes as melodramatic as the trashy films her mother used to star in. In comparison, Runner G is plainer and more direct. Honest with himself about what he knows and what he does not, he is wary of ceding to the beautiful girl's inquiries. He thinks that "my story is my only thing of value so I am sparing with it."

What he doesn't know about her, he is determined to find out, using his newly developed survival skills. While Abikẹ bakes him a burnt cake and shows Jokẹ how to wear makeup, her hawker suspects that there is something sinister in the Johnson household and begins to uncover the Spider King's secrets.

With hefty symbols and themes coming thick in the book, some of the secondary characters and plot twists get reduced to cardboard. Struggling shop owner Aunty Precious is forced to shoulder the hypocrisy of religion and the hardship of women. She comes into the story by selling Runner G the ice cream that he totes along the streets in a big sack of metaphor, and joins up with the prophecy-burbling Mr. T to provide the plot with a whopping big coincidence that contributes little to the story. What is convincing is the vividly rendered backdrop of Lagos. It provides both melody and friction for the noirish goings-on that underpin this faltering love affair.

After a second act bogged down by too much awkward adolescent to-and-fro and heavy-handed foreshadowing, the story sharpens its teeth as it draws toward a confrontation between Abikẹ, Runner G, and her father. Big themes rain down -- honor and justice and loyalty and family ties -- and get knotted together in a taught finale with a genuinely surprising ending.

Onuzo's novel works best when it concentrates on the primary collision between a have and have-not, making effective use of Lagos as a dramatic setting to a love story turned thriller. It's a promising debut work by a twenty-two-year old writer with the confidence to try out a story with such Shakespearean scope on these bull-headed teenagers. It doesn't paint an attractive picture of the world that burns off their innocence, but it does leave an impression of the great changes that love can make and unmake in a life.

The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571268894
256 pages