“The Middle Daughter” by Chika Unigwe

Award-winning author, James McBride, said to new writers, “The simple story is the best story,” and that is exactly what Chika Unigwe’s novel authored with her latest novel, The Middle Daughter. But Unigwe is not new to writing by any means. She writes essays, poetry, novels, and short stories. She has been published in numerous anthologies, journals, and magazines and has been awarded multiple fellowships. Her novel, On Black Sister’s Street, won the very prestigious 2012 Nigerian Prize for Literature. In 2003, she won the BBC Short Story Competition. Unigwe’s writing awards, bibliography, and career is as extensive as impressive. With all these achievements, one might wonder how simple the story of The Middle Daughter really is. Well, it is not simple at all. Simplicity is conveyed through efficiency, no superfluous words, and clean straightforward prose. The author has a Hemingwayesque type style; every sentence, every page is deliberate and measured. One page has only one word—Doxology! Simply said, yet this single word packs so much meaning and speaks volumes about the character, Ephraim. There is poetry here. And so, Unigwe’s telling of The Middle Daughter may be simply told, but her novel is teeming with complex and powerful themes: grief, domestic abuse, female subjugation, mother-daughter relationships, rape, religious manipulation, reproductive rights, shame, sisterhood, social castes, and survival.

Set in contemporary Enugu, Nigeria, the narrative alternates between the past and present and is told from the point of view of three sisters as well as the antagonist, Ephraim, Nani’s husband (though arguably, Mother is a secondary antagonist). Nani, the middle daughter and protagonist, is told from a close, first-person, point-of-view narrator, making Nani’s experiences feel like the reader’s experiences. Seventeen-year-old Nani is so ashamed for being raped, impregnated, and manipulated into marriage by Ephraim, someone considered to be below her social status, she refuses to reveal her secret. Though you sympathize with Nani, she proves to be frustrating character; however, Ugo, the youngest sister, told in third-person point-of-view, offsets those sentiments because she is also equally confused, frustrated, and saddened by Nani’s circumstances. Udodi, the eldest sister who has departed the world but remains a presence as the chorus to the novel, is also told from a first-person point-of-view. Udodi foretells Nani’s future, remarks on past events, provides insight into Nani’s character, and offers an explanation as to why Nani finds herself in dire circumstances. Finally, Ephraim, another character told in first-person point-of-view, is an extremely disturbing character to read.

Though Nani is the main character, Udodi sets the tone with an Igbo creation myth, establishing how the world came into being, and how with the creation of the world good (depicted as beauty) and evil originated. Dualism is a primary theme in this novel and the author conveys this literally and metaphorically. There is the privileged world of the three daughters—Udodi, Nani, and Ugo—who are well-educated and live in airconditioned mansions behind large fences with security guards; and then there is the outside, impoverished, developing country the girls are excluded from, or Ephraim’s world. Udodi says, Imagine this: three girls. A father. A mother. The house smells of loving. And living. Smells of good-timing and a knowing that life is sweet. Until it doesn’t. A collision of two worlds. Collision occurs in multiple ways. Life and death collide when first Udodi dies followed by the father, Doda. When Ephraim enters the picture, Nani’s privileged world collides with his impoverished one. Though both Christian, their religions clash. Ephraim resides in a delusional narcissistic world where he justifies abducting, raping, and abusing Nani. Mother runs a maternity clinic; her more modern progressive views conflict with Ephraim’s conservative views which he uses against Nani, by convincing Nani her mother is evil, abortion is evil, and her unwanted pregnancy is a blessing from God. Ugo, the youngest daughter, dreams of living in America, but when Mother and Ugo move to Atlanta she discovers her vision of the states, what she imagined was like an episode in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, is vastly different. The city and the country are as flawed and imperfect as her thinking. Unigwe addresses these parallels, tasking the reader to reflect on their own judgments and misconceptions.

Udodi offers an intriguing character and in the eternal realm. She is all-knowing, has the power to see both the past and the future, but she has limited powers because she is a mute: What use is Power if mute it must remain? If it did, we could get some respite: from the torture of seeing both the present and the future, not be tormented by all the I-wish-I-coulds. Udodi describes how she would have interceded on Nani’s behalf were she alive. Structurally, via stream of consciousness, Unigwe uses this character to make larger narrative leaps in time. Udodi sets the mood, but she also moves the plot forward, and oftentimes comments not only in her family, but on corruption in Nigeria. Her character embodies the dualism in Nigerian society. Before her passing, she lived in two worlds, the Nigeria she left behind and the U.S. where she attends college in Atlanta, Georgia. Dualism is conveyed when she speaks in two languages—English and Igbo. Though Christian, she alludes to Igbo deities.

While Nani is the main character, Udodi’s tragic death provides the inciting incident; and because she recognizes this, she waits in a pseudo-narrative halfway house for Nani to grow strong enough to leave Ephraim. It is no accident that Unigwe bookends her narrative with Udodi’s chorus; Udodi essentially “creates” and resolves the conflict. At the end, she speaks in coherent sentences whereas previously her language was lyrical, blending different languages with her unmethodical insights that do not adhere to rules of grammar and syntax. The shift in language, structure, and style suggests Udodi’s chaotic situation, this in-between space she finds herself in, as well as an evolution of character. She must see her story and Nani’s story through to the end. She makes a powerful final statement: “Whosoever’s voice is heard is not dead.” This statement appears to be an alluding to the Book of John in the Bible, though amended from: “Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” At its heart, The Middle Daughter is feminist text with Christian themes and symbols. This amended verse is inclusive—“whosoever”— does not refer to a male deity but empowers all voices, and as such Udodi who is no longer mute, moves on, and finds her voice.

Short chapters accompanied with variations on perceptions permit a view of the characters’ personalities but also give insight into Nani’s character. The reader desperately wants to intervene, to yell at Nani: “No, stop!” It is important to remember Nani is still a child. Shame and the fear of rejection by her family (especially Mother) dominates her poor decision making. Of course, there is an ever-present sense of dread the author establishes early on. The first thing Nani says in the first “Present” section is, “I fear the man who is my husband.” This setup is intense, made even more ominous because immediately after Nani makes this statement, the author moves seven years into the past to a time when Nani was an immature teenager unaware of the danger Ephraim represents. Unigwe goes full circle at the end, repeating this foreboding sentence in part three, “The Beginning,” when Nani escapes Ephraim and returns home. Unigwe experiments with time, moving between the present to the past and again to past, then back to the present, and ending with the closing section titled, “The Beginning.” Another epigraph—“The past was once both the present and the future” segues the second “Past” section. The treatment of time is intriguing; time is fluid, not linear. Time does not follow a straight path. There is no beginning, middle, and end, but a series of events that lead to a final moment when Nani gains inner strength and flees.

If The Middle Daughter reads like a modern folktale, this is because it is a retelling of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone with some alterations. The epigraph, a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Book V, the abduction and rape story of Proserpina by Pluto, sets the tone. Persephone was gathering flowers when Hades abducted her and took her to the underworld. Though Ephraim does not kidnap Nani when he first encounters her, she was also gathering flowers. Ephraim begins visiting Nani. He preaches to her, slowly gaining her trust so that she finally agrees to attend his church one night. Like Persephone, who sealed her fate to remain in the underworld by eating a pomegranate seed, Nani sealed her fate by accepting small tokens of fruit and groundnuts from Ephraim. Death has derailed Nani’s family. She feels isolated from her youngest sister, Ugo, who resumes life as if death had not come at all. Nani’s mother throws herself into her work, opening maternity clinics, consorting with government officials, ultimately becoming a very wealthy woman, and building a successful business. Even though Nani does not like Ephraim and thinks him ridiculous—his speech, his grandiosity, his poor clothes—her grief and resentment for her family create a void that needs to be filled and Ephraim is there to fill it. Like Hades, who tricked Persephone, Ephraim tricks Nani into marrying him and once she is under his control she has fully descended into his underworld. Unlike Persephone’s mother, Demeter, Mother washes her hands of Nani. It is Udodi who fulfills the role of Demeter and champions Nani through her chorus.

The antagonist, Ephraim, reminded me of a combination of a Flannery O’Connor villain, and although no hero or even anti-hero, he possesses qualities from a Greek tragedy. He is a caricature. His absurd actions and speech are overly exaggerated. He creates both a comical (to a point) and grotesque character meant to shock the reader. O’Connor used her grotesque characters to expose the dark and hidden side of the “genteel” South, its insanity and violence. Ephraim is completely insane and very violent. When he compares his lowly origins to Nani’s lavish upbringing, he contemplates how to “acquire” her: If you have no earthly papa at all to leave you even the coat your maman says he adorned himself in on a quotidian basis like a sapeur, a diamond like Nani will survey you like a rag that someone has employed to mop vomit off the floor, or chewing gum that is stuck on the bottom of her Sunday shoes. How to win over a woman like her? Her ilk envisage that they are gods and people like me are but fallen angels not worthy of their beating hearts. I am sufficiently versed in the mocking ways of the rich. He goes on to complain about all the women who scorned him, to lament his lowly background all the while declaring his superiority over everyone: If not for the crinkum-crankum of my life, I can asservate that I, Ephraim, would have been a doctor or a politician living a life of Byzantine luxury too. Ephraim presents a complicated character. Perhaps had he not been the byproduct of poverty, religion would not have called so deeply to him. For him, religion equals power. The only means for someone like him to achieve an inkling of power would be to become a minister with his own church. While this character may resemble a tragic Greek figure—hubristic, arrogant, and guided by pride—Ephraim is morally flawed. The classic antihero is indeed flawed but still possesses a moral compass. The names of his and Nani’s children—Holy, Praisehim, and Godsown—are prime examples of his hubris. Ephraim checks off all the boxes for a true narcissist: he has an inflated ego, he is envious of others, he lacks empathy, he requires constant admiration and attention, and he fantasizes about power and success. This is not incidental; the author is alluding to another Greek myth, “The Myth of Narcissus.” Narcissus caused his own death. He so loved himself, he withered away by staring at his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus, the flower, sprouted in the spot where he died. When Persephone discovers the Narcissus flower, she believes it to be the most beautiful flower she has ever seen. However, when she bends down to observe it better, the ground opens, Hades appears, and he takes her to the underworld. The reader might had been sympathetic to Ephraim’s plight initially, as one feels sympathy for all unfortunates, but it ends there. He is a rapist, a criminal, and mentally and physically abusive to Nani.

Presented in unique narrative styles and voices, the author experiments with structure and narrative time, weaves allusions in with ancient myths and religion, and exposes the country’s darker side against a setting that concurrently celebrates the richness of Nigerian culture. Though the author does comment on big societal issues, it is never forced. With so many opinions and agendas being pushed on the public, it feels like you must pick a side and stick with it even if that “side” does not support all your beliefs. Part of the beauty of this novel are the many different perspectives. The Middle Daughter is a testament to the universality of the human condition. No matter where you are from, how different your food tastes or language sounds, how unlike your customs and traditions are, ultimately, we share the same struggles.

Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria. She was educated at UNN and KUL (Belgium) and earned her PhD from Leiden University, Holland. Widely translated, she has won awards for her writing. Her books include On Black Sisters’ Street and Better Never than Late. She teaches at Georgia College, Milledgeville, GA.



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