Faber and Faber (2012)
Besides being one of only three people to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once, John Updike is also famous for the rules of literary criticism that he published in 1975. And it is with his wise counsel in mind that I attempt the review, below, of Chibundu Onuzo’s The Spider King’s Daughter.
Trying to understand what the author wished to do and not blaming her for not achieving what she did not attempt
I first chanced upon this book, in the hands of a teenage boy on an underground train; he appeared to be reading it with much enjoyment. As the writer began writing it when she was only 17, I had concluded that this was a novel for young adults. My conclusion was backed by further evidence such as the bold red title font and the colourfully illustrated cover. But nothing on the book info page on the website of its publisher, Faber and Faber, or on Amazon distinguished it as such. I therefore did not approach it as young adult fiction, and quite expected – at my grand old age – to enjoy it as much as the boy furiously turning pages beside me on the train.
I did. Sometimes.
Giving her enough direct quotes so you can form your own impression
Along with the obvious reason – being a Nigerian literature fiend – for my attraction to this book, it was its blurb, a quote from the book, which made me spare it attention among the pile of books ascending to several precarious storeys atop my wardrobe. The blurb read: “I looked at her face while she was bringing out her wallet…she passed me a two hundred naira note with a smile that showed perfect teeth. It would have been so easy to sprint off with her money. I gave her the change before placing the ice-cream on her palm. Someone else would have to show her that the world was not filled with honest hawkers and unicorns.”
This quote pretty much set the scene for the surprise readers get when they realise that the trusting adolescent described above, Abike Johnson, is an anti-hero of sorts, rather than the stereotypical, cosseted rich girl. And that perhaps the “honest hawker” might be the one who has yet to outgrow his belief in unicorns.
Confirming my description of the book with a quotation rather than proceeding by a fuzzy prexis
This book is the combined diary of two young people, set tidily apart with different fonts. Although Chibundu recounts the same experiences from both viewpoints, she introduces enough discrepancies in their perception and narration of shared events that rarely does it seem that one is being told the same thing twice. Quite the opposite in fact, she uses their disconnected understanding as a tool to progress the plot.
Lists in literature are my new thing, especially since reading the opening of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of An Ending. Chibundu deploys it in The Spider King’s… almost as capably as Barnes: Every morning I wake up and I know exactly what to do. 1) Bathe, 2) Make Sure Joke does the same, 3) Eat Breakfast, 4) Make sure Joke does the same, 5) Ditto my mother, 6) Take Joke to school, 7) Leave school for work, 8) Make sure Joke never does the same.
The individuality of her expressions and the deft deployment of metaphors are thrilling as well. See this: “We had come to Yaba market the home of cheap wooden stalls bowed under the weight of the average Nigerian’s need to look Western for as Eastern a price as possible”, and this: “I offered the pack by reflex… My father taught us to always act like waiters, or hosts, as he preferred to say. He was an effacing man, always scanning the room to look for someone to serve. ‘Offer your seat, offer your drink, offer your mints.’”.
Chibundu works words with the dexterity of a more experienced author. Writers, they say, acquire style as they mature, but reading Chibundu gives me the sense that it is also possible to just have it waiting to be poured into a debut effort. The thought of the kind of genius this writer might have to offer in a few years – if indeed writers do grow into their styles – fills me with excitement.
Going easy on the plot summary
So what’s the story of The Spider King’s Daughter? It’s a bit of that old story of how rich girl meets poor boy, only like most, it is infused with its own brand of manipulation, scores that need settling, and reasons why poor boy will never be good enough for rich girl.
Sadly, it is in plot and characterisation that Chibundu exhibits the deficiency that marks her as a greenhorn, creating a story that torpedoes just when it should be building up. If I were Chibundu’s editor, I’d lose most of the last hundred pages or so – right from where Runner G reads his father’s letter; and I’d throw Mr T into that heap of discards, too, he really is too confused and confusing to be a credible character: we never find out if his daughter died aged two or six, which insurance company he worked for, if any, nor can we make any sense of his fantastic recollections of an encounter with a prophet.
Chibundu does a wonderful job of developing the complexity of her characters until she abruptly does an about face and begins to expend a lot of effort to destroy all that she has achieved up to this point. Runner G has developed a sense of pride in his situation, and begun to lose the defensiveness that had hitherto shadowed it. Abike finally sees how the less fortunate half lives, and begins to form an empathy for not just Runner G and his family, but other people – indifference is turning to interest and then progressing towards understanding. We are bating our breath for the massive confrontation of old ideals with this newly achieved maturity when Chibundu, perhaps not perceptive enough of this growth she’s spun, dashes our expectations in one ill-executed denouement.
Making sure that my judging the book deficient (in plot) isn’t my own failing as a reader/reviewer rather than Chibundu’s
While this book might be satisfactory for the young adult (that phrase again!) there are several things that could have been done more skilfully. They are:
Unexplained accusations – Abike is accused of turning her father against her half siblings and even her own mother, “You cannot blame her mother, she’s as much a victim as the rest of us”. But we are never told how Abike finagles her way into her father’s good graces and manages to oust everyone else. We need to see how this slip of a girl achieves, at seventeen, this most conniving of feats, and a few rounds of ‘frustration’, and smart-mouthing don’t show it sufficiently.
Flawed resolution – In order not to give this one away, I have to content myself with saying only that that scene that combines the excitement of strangulation, gun totting, and stiletto head-nailing is the weakest in the whole book
Plausibility – There was no emotional truth in two responsible adults being complicit in the plans of a teenager to carry out a murder, and that belated withdrawal of Aunty Precious comes a little too late to stem the damage.
Coincidences – Chibundu should steer away from the coincidences that are often a direct result of wondering whether readers will get it if you don’t smack them on the head with it. How come every one who has ever met Mr Johnson describes him by his birthmark? And why are there so many people connected to him? Somewhere into the first few accounts of him, readers already know what to make of his character.
Besides the matter of a plot that was allowed to go bad, my other grouse is with the apparent “Nigerianisms” in Chibundu’s writing; expressions like “they reached the gate” make it appear that Chibundu is not elevating her vocabulary to cater to global readers. As for dialogue, it needs be said that every character gets a paragraph no matter how little they say, to allow for clarity.
The vaguer sixth: Proclaiming the chemical purity in the reaction between me and the Spider King’s Daughter and its writer
I came to this book with no bias formed, if there were any preceding reactions, it was excitement at reading the work of a young, female Nigerian writer, who had at 19, while grappling with an undergraduate degree in history, managed to secure a two book contract with a major international publisher. My opinion after reading The Spider Kings…, however, is that Chibundu needs to allow herself grow. Not in style, necessarily, she has that aplenty, but in the structure of the craft, and in experience. If for nothing else but to be able to achieve the kind of confident recount that is only acquired through a fair bit worldliness – one that will enable her craft better dialogue than “So what’s your name?”, “They call me Runner G on the road. What’s yours?” “They used to call me Mr T in my office.”