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Fiction: The Spider King’s Daughter

The Spider King’s Daughter
Chibundu Onuzo
Allen & Unwin

The Spider King’s Daughter opens with a powerful scene of domestic sadism in which the protagonist’s father runs over her dog. Her one-upmanship in this cruelty is the beginning of a game that she calls Frustration, an unhealthy battle for power with her father, which gets her into all kinds of strife later on.

I say protagonist, but The Spider King’s Daughter is a double-hander, with the perspective shifting equally between two first-person voices. Abike, the wealthy daughter of the title, is out with her driver when she becomes infatuated with a street hawker, and the two strike up a halting relationship which attempts to transcend their circumstances. The hawker’s voice forms the other part of the narrative duet.

Born in 1991, Onuzo began this book at 17 and was published by Faber at 21, which makes her a rare beast, particularly in adult fiction. Her story of young lovers thwarted by circumstance has all the hallmarks of YA romance, and, at first, this book seems to be a sweet rags-to-riches tale in an interesting setting. But there is a bit more going on. Sinister currents lurk in the hearts of these teenagers. The circumstances of life in Nigeria, with its immense rift between rich and poor, threatens more than just the developing romance.

The prose style is so clean that the novel reads like a film, and it’s one that utilises its fair share of TV tropes. The slow adding of shocking circumstances such as corruption, trafficking and violence builds an even tension. The hawker is a handsome prince fallen on hard times; the princess here is not what she seems.

For all that, the treatment of these tropes is sophisticated. The evils of social inequality are not just forces that act upon the wealthy Abike and her suitor from outside. They are forces that operate in the thoughts and habits of the teenagers themselves. Choosing sadism and violence is painted as not only a product of social circumstance, but a series of tiny everyday decisions and judgements leading to greater and greater risks. Onuzo brings this off with impressive poise. Our own sympathies are put through the wringer, and the goodies and baddies are not always clear.

Some of these revelations – a lot of the drive comes from past events – are handled better than others. The dialogue is at times stiff and the plot can be contrived, such as when the hawker finds a mysterious letter at just the right time, or the unlikely coincidence that minor characters have been screwed over by the same bad guy (who happens to have a distinctive scar and a has-been movie-star wife). Indeed, the title ‘The ___’s Daughter’ is something of a publishing cliché, and it is easy to be cynical about the sales and marketing meeting that gave this book the green light.

But for all that, the clever handling of exposition is engaging and the portrayal of youth’s shifting loyalties quite stirring. Among few symbols, the wealthy Abike’s failure (or refusal) to ever use the hawker’s name is skilfully utilised. The sexual tension is subtly charged, as is the marriage of money and shame, which must always go hand-in-hand in a society with such extremities of inequality.

The battle between social class and romantic love is as old as fiction, and this example plays out as an exploration of desire: physical and emotional desire, ambition and the will to power – but in Onuzo’s Lagos, the social context seems insurmountable, and justice nowhere. For such conditions, judgement is used sparingly until the very end as the plot twists begin to take shape.

These twists are a little sudsy, and the rapid perspective-switching grows slippery as the novel spins to its suspenseful conclusion. That said, The Spider King’s Daughter is an accomplished debut, which cleverly works its way into big-picture social issues with the blunt tools of popular fiction.

Jennifer Mills is the author of two novels, Gone and The Diamond Anchor, and a collection of short stories, The Rest is Weight. Her work has received wide critical acclaim and won numerous awards both nationally and internationally. In 2012 she was named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian novelist. She lives in regional South Australia and is currently the fiction editor at Overland.

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