Book review - The Spider King's Daugher

A street trader chases after a black jeep. The car slows down then speeds up, stops and accelerates. The driver is teasing him. Finally the car is stationary, the window slides down and the opposing worlds of a hawker and the daughter of a wealthy businessman collide.

Abike lives in luxury, surrounded by armed guards, and has her own personal driver. By contrast, Runner G, recently impoverished after the death of his lawyer father, inhabits a slum with no running water and is forced to sell ice-cream in order to provide for his mother and younger sister.

Narrated by the two teenagers who strike-up an unexpected friendship, Chibundu Onuzo’s debut novel evokes the chaos and corruption of Lagos, the sharp divisions between rich and poor and the capriciousness of Nigeria’s elite society where political favours are bought and sold with impunity.

On some levels The Spider King’s Daughter reads like a teenage romance but darkness hovers on the sidelines. The novel opens with a description of the cruel game of one-upmanship Abike plays with her father. “A dog used to follow me around when I was ten. One day my father had his driver run the dog over in plain view of the house. I watched from the window.” Instead of being traumatised Abike calmly instructs them to run the dog over again, remarking, as an aside, “make sure he hits the head this time.”

This shocking, brutal incident serves as a telling metaphor for the world of Abike’s father. A corrupt businessman, for whom life is cheap and power is won and retained through intimidation and murder, he can even buy Abike’s entry to Yale: “The good thing about applying from Nigeria was that most of the process could be done by someone else. My father had paid a PhD holder to fill out my forms and sit the SATs for me.”

At 20 years old, Onuzo is Faber’s youngest published female author. She writes in spare prose and has a keen ear for the Pidgin English of the street which vividly contrasts with the carefully cultivated language of those wielding power.

If Nigeria’s turbulent political and social landscape is the backdrop to the novel, Lagos is its central character and Onuzo is at her best when describing the isolation of her two protagonists as they struggle to forge their own paths through this restless, teeming, violent city.

Originally published in the TLS