The Spider King’s Daughter, by Chibundu Onuzo
Across west Africa, young men and women sell goods at the side of dusty roads, running up to the windows of cars and buses to sell snacks, water, even shampoo to the passengers. These quiet roadside exchanges, through which different echelons of society meet, are ripe for exploration at a time when the gaps between the poor and the wealthy are widening.
Chibundu Onuzo’s debut asks what would happen if a romance was built on one of these exchanges. When Abike, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, locks eyes with a young male hawker in Lagos, the attraction is immediate. Abike teases the hawker by ordering her driver to speed up, slow down, then speed up again, watching the man run after her car – and they eventually strike up a friendship that turns into romance.
There’s something subtly disturbing about this very first encounter, and this is characteristic of the book as a whole, which is dotted with shocks and transgressions. It becomes clear that the characters’ love and lust are tangled with their own material and emotional needs; Abike describes the sparring between her and her father as ‘Frustration’, but all the characters are playing a game of some kind.
In fact, as Abike and the hawker make tentative inroads into each other’s worlds, Onuzo suggests they are products of a much wider web of corruption and exploitation. Through a series of (rather far-fetched) coincidences, we discover that their circumstances are interlinked, and it becomes clear that their romance cannot escape a destructive, violent fate.
This treatment of social issues can seem heavy-handed: the trafficking industry, for example, is shoehorned into the plot and there’s too little exploration of the different worlds inhabited by the young lovers. Were the long, winding corridors of Abike’s house or the slums of Lagos explored with the same cool ambivalence as the central relationship, this novel could really pack a punch.
However, Onuzo’s close focus on character and dialogue make this a gripping début: absorbing, fast-paced and refreshingly frank about human duplicities. As the novel builds towards its climax, it barely wastes a word. The perspective speeds from hawker to Abike and back again, with the sense that neither really knows what they are doing, tripped up both by the world they live in and their own foggy, blurred intentions.