Night Dancer by Chika Unigwe – review

Night Dancer by Chika Unigwe – review

Bernardine Evaristo is moved by the drama of a young Nigerian woman’s life

Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe: superb portrayals of complex female characters. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

It is the 1970s and a young, university-educated woman called Ezi tries for years to conceive a child with her husband. In her traditional Nigerian Igbo culture, it is the wife’s duty to produce children, most importantly a son. When she fails, Ezi’s mother-in-law turns against her. Her husband still loves her but is desperate for a male heir. Depressed and restless, Ezi wants to work, but her husband believes her place is in the home, so she spends her days knitting. When she eventually falls pregnant, she is ecstatic. When the child is born, it is a girl. Oh dear.

Meanwhile, her husband has been having an affair with their teenage maid, Rapu, who gives birth to his longed-for son. It is expected that Ezi will accept Rapu as her husband’s second wife, but she’s having none of it and bravely leaves the marriage to raise her daughter alone. This incurs the wrath of everyone, and her parents disown her. The whole family is shamed by association, and Ezi’s younger sister will not now be able to find a husband.

The plot, darting back and forth in time, hinges on the fallout of Ezi’s rebellion against the cultural norms of her community, especially the impact on her daughter, Adamma. The society they live in privileges men over women, family over individuality, conformity over free will. The price Ezi pays for leaving her husband is to become a pariah. Other women are suspicious of her, rightly worrying about their straying husbands. She initially struggles to earn a living, and as a single woman, cannot secure a bank loan for a business idea. Her daughter Adamma is born into social stigma – a bastard. Other children are forbidden to play with her, and the vivid memory of the taunts she endured in her isolated childhood haunt her into adulthood…

 

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