Book Title: The Spider King’s Daughter
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Year of Publication: 2012
If you are an eighteen year old version of me who judged books by their covers, you may dismiss The Spider King’s Daughter as another children’s fable. You will thus be denying yourself of a book a twenty-something year old version of me will describe as brilliant and intensely gripping. My sincere warning to everyone: this book is dangerous to emergency situations.
I should confess that I’m extremely careful in selecting Nigerian novels to read compared to the plethora of foreign authors I keep adding with record speed. My reason is simple; I think most of the local writers exert unnecessary effort copying styles of accomplished writers that they lose innovativeness in their stories. Hope for people like me is embodied in the level of incredible innovativeness authors like Chibundu Onuzo brings to the table.
From the beginning, Onuzo has her work cut out; cast a thick spell on the reader. Throughout the book, she employs the first person language conveyed through the major characters, a deft manoeuvre usually reserved for the pantheons in the writing world. The result is that, at every point the reader is able to relate – to the point of distraction, intimately with the mind-roving of the characters.
Most of the characters come in various forms, from the dour to the hilarious; the piteously poor and the immensely rich; the proud, the arrogant and the conniving; each has a story dark and compelling, meticulously woven around them to ensure near absence of ambiguity. There are several themes that stand out such as love, hate, malice, friendship, and betrayal.
With a surprising ease for a first writer, Onuzo delves into a part of society that is only seen but rarely talked about – the personal life of a street hawker. We see them every day on our streets but we barely know them beyond the goods balanced on their heads or shoulders. Sometimes the government put them in the spotlight with one eviction policy or the other.
How they live away from their trade is seldom broached. It is as if their lives have been put on hold the moment we see them on the street. Like the Running G in Onuzo’s book we usually don’t address them with a name. They are the “others” in our society. The book scores a success in this regard.
Running G the hawker takes us on the journey of discovery. He is compelled by the death of his father in mysterious circumstances to embrace a life he was ill-prepared for – the bread-winner. It is a typical case of from grace to grass.
Saddled with the responsibility of taking care of his disillusioned mother and an eager-to-experiment sister, Joke, Running G takes to hawking. He is however creative about it, as he strikes a partnership with Aunty Precious whose dark secrets and misadventure have sidelined her dreams “to go to the university and study medicine.” All she has left were her store, the love of a man, Emeka, she believes she will never deserve and her dark past. Running G’s hawking would bring him into contact with Abike the only beloved daughter of powerful Chief Olumide Johnson.
Abike – very vain and arrogant, is unconscionably drawn to the hawker – handsome, proud and loves to be in control. A story much like the Princess and the Pauper begins. Love is not the first thing on Running G’s mind when Abike begins to send signals, but his feelings will betray him. His fate, as well as that of those around he comes in contact with – Mr T the beggar, Aunty Precious the ex-prostitute, Wale and “Chief” half-brothers to Abike, is tied to one man and his capriciousness – Chief Olumide Johnson.
Abike and Running G capture the two extremes of the society we live in – the nouveau riche and the hideously poor. Abike who is locked in an intense supremacist battle with her father, Chief Johnson, begins to exploit her growing feeling for Running G mainly to spite her father. Her father makes it clear to her “I am not sure this is the kind of person you should be spending time with” and she replies “well usually I would agree but there is something special about this hawker.”
The more time she spends with the hawker the more the air of mystique surrounding him appeals to her curiosity. Running G is not easily bought over by the attention Abike lavishes on him, having tasted both wealth and poverty. Over time he is to discover that he and Abike has a lot in common – a secret that both will confront and which will decide the next stage of their relationship.
I can vouch for the beginning but the end of the story was somewhat predictable. The events that led to the death of Chief Johnson was not clearly choreographed – which somewhat minimized the effect the climax should have given. Similarly much as I can speak in glowing terms for most of the characters, I am not convinced with the role of Dosunmu.
For the important role of successfully piloting the huge scandal that the death of Chief Johnson engendered one would have thought that he would be mentioned earlier rather than manufacturing him from thin air. In using Dosunmu, the author seems to be confirming the suspicion that she was in a hurry and needed something to fill up the spaces. There are more questions towards the end, what became of Aunty Precious, Mr T, Cynthia and Oritse?
Importantly, in terms of addressing salient issues that replete the story, I am reluctant to admit the book was very successful. For instance, if I was a hawker seeking a way out, would I find my answers in the Spider King’s Daughter? The answer is No. Running G resumes his trade on the street ever paranoid that his family’s lives are in danger while Abike confidently assumes heir of her father’s business empire. It may appear a clever manipulation of the poor hawkers to pay the rich Abikes of this world.
Onuzo through her book shines the light on the neglected poor and by so doing challenges the rest of the society for self-examination.
By Onuoha Frank
Frank Onuoha is an historian, book collector, and a avid reader.