Dzanc Books • Release Date: April 4, 2023

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of the most scandalous Greek mythologies tells how Hades rose from the depths of hell to kidnap Persephone and force her into a marriage in the underworld. She was picking flowers on a field when he attacked, and although the claim is that he had fallen in love with her, theirs is not a love story. The one-sidedness of it, the fact of the abduction, even the emotional devastation his cruelty wreaked on Persephone’s mother, Demeter, strips this complex story of any definition of romantic love. 

Chika Unigwe’s new novel, The Middle Daughter, is a modern retelling of that story. It is filled with haunting voices which includes the chorus of a dead daughter who had gone on to become an ancestor, interceding on her sister’s behalf; the middle daughter herself, for whom this story is told; a younger sister, who fills in the missing pieces that contextualizes why what happened to the central character happened; the husband himself—Hades in human form—who preys on a vulnerable young woman, forcing her into a marriage that strips her of human dignity. 

The novel chronicles Nani’s horrifying marriage to Ephraim, the preacher who stumbles upon her while she is in mourning. Her father—her pillar, her protector—has just passed, shortly after her sister died in America. It is one death too many, and Nani is rocked by the shock of it all. “I was the one that ran mad,” she says. Her anchor is gone and she is left drifting, a small twig swept in the current of a massive river, reeling from a despair that has gouged her and left her hollow. And it is in this moment of listlessness that Ephraim finds her. Like Hades, he steals her, then proceeds to break her spirit, stripping her of any chance at immediate resistance, before trapping her in the underbelly of his home. But unlike Persephone, whose mother negotiates for her a sort of reprieve, Nani is abandoned in the depths of this new hell. Her mother, an ambitious medical practitioner with her own complex arc that shocks and confounds, refuses to understand why her daughter, a girl from a well-to-do family, properly educated and sheltered from poverty, would fall prey to the scourge of the earth. She is disappointed in Nani, is unforgivably angry with her, and for that reason bans the youngest sister from visiting Nani in the dank apartment she shares with Ephraim. Nani is denied the community support she needs.

Yet the arc of Nani’s grief, although woven into the spine of this book, is not Unigwe’s only theme. The Middle Daughter is also about a woman’s tenacity, her postpartum depression, her struggles with marriage and motherhood in a religious setting, her refusal to succumb to despair, and her eventual ascension. 

But this journey out of the underworld is plagued with stumbling blocks: children have been brought into this world and Nani, unlike her own mother, will not leave them behind. “I fear the man who is my husband,” she tells us in the opening pages, and later shares how he isolates her—another form of abuse that is geared toward denying her any form of community, any opportunity of receiving help: “[He] disapproves of visitors. None of the neighbours came to the house,” she adds. 

Before her ordeal, Nani hadn’t encountered women who survived domestic abuse and so she doesn’t have a model to mirror, and she can’t make sense of the fact that her suffering is extolled as a virtue in their church. In one chapter, she tells how their chief pastor described her as the exemplary Christian woman—submissive and silent, who all others must emulate. She wishes to tell everyone about Ephraim’s true nature, the abuse she endures, but she knows she will be mocked, chastised, punished for falling short of the church’s expectation for femininity. And it is at this point, when she realizes that even the church is complicit in her subjugation, that she makes a decision: to craft a new chapter in which she will find joy, a tapestry for the daughters who will come after her.

The book is structured in an astonishingly ingenious form. We move from voice to voice, from human to spirit, fitting puzzle after puzzle that all come together to form a whole. We see Ephraim’s bombastic and egotistical perspective. We hear from the beloved ancestor, Udodi, who watches over Nani. We sense Ugo’s frustration. These shifting perspectives shine a kaleidoscope of lights, all of which are necessary, no matter how uncomfortable their motivations may be. As such, The Middle Daughter demonstrates that although it takes a society to undo a woman, her bravery, her courage, that resilience in the face of adversity, become the bricks with which she builds a new future for herself. This book, at the end, is replete with joy. 

Unigwe’s writing is urgent, commanding, and attentive. Despite the shifting voices and the complicated individual arcs that are woven around Nani’s chapters, and how viscerally the writer illustrated the insidiousness of trauma, she remains in control, disciplining this story into a pulsing, powerful thing. Her language, the authority of the voices she’s populated the book with, run through you clean as an arrow.

I love that the US cover shows the three sisters with Nani draped in colors, suggesting completeness, growth, laughter, bliss. And that lush hair, after all she has endured? “I have been through hellfire and survived,” she says in the closing pages. This classic is a manual for survival in the league of Buchi Emecheta, and is rich with a sense of place.

The Middle Daughter will be here for forever, passed from our generation to the ones that are coming in the front because it is “life bookended by joy and light,” as Nani tells us. “It is full. It is overflowing.”

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About the Author:

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma and Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name.