The Nigerwife: A Novel
The Nigerwife is a remarkable book. While it has a mystery at its core, it is also an in-depth look at upper-class Lagos culture both from within and through the eyes of the poorer people who are basically their servants. The picture it paints of a patriarchal society with little room for women to be more than mothers and housekeepers is pretty devastating but rings true. The author herself was once a “Nigerwife.” The novel reminds one more of Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer than Adenle’s Amaka novels.
The Prologue opens with: “Nicole often wondered what happened to the body. A few months after she arrived in Lagos, a body appeared in the lagoon close to the compound, bobbing along on a blanket of trash, a bloated starfish facedown in the river.”
At the heart of the story is the disappearance of Nicole, a London woman who married a successful Nigerian man from a wealthy family. She has two delightful boys and lives in luxury at her parents-in-law’s house in a wealthy Lagos suburb. She has a variety of friends largely from The Nigerwives Association—a society of women from abroad who have married wealthy Nigerian men and now find each other the only tolerable company while their husbands get on with making money and whatever else they want to do.
The book is told from two perspectives. Nicole tells her own story covering the period up until she disappears, and as that point approaches, we see the pieces of the puzzle maneuver into place one by one. The other perspective is that of her estranged aunt Claudine who brought Nicole from Jamaica to London many years before. When no news of Nicole reaches London for a week after her disappearance, Claudine decides that she is going to see what’s happening herself and catches a flight to Lagos.
Claudine arrives tired but hoping for some news from Nicole’s husband, Tonye. However, he has nothing new to tell her and doesn’t seem overly upset. The next morning she meets the rest of the family led by the patriarch who everyone refers to simply as “Chief.” His wife and daughters defer to him on everything, and Tonye is not much different. Claudine is formally welcome: they paid for her flight, have supplied her with a comfortable suite in the house, and access to a car with a driver. But no one seems to be particularly concerned about what has happened to Nicole, and there is even a suggestion that she might have decided to leave of her own free will. Claudine tries to find out what the police have achieved, but discovers only that the matter is being treated in a low key fashion so as not to embarrass the family and interfere with the wedding plans of one of Tonye’s sisters.
Claudine realizes that if the mystery is to be solved, she will have to solve it herself and sets out to do just that. She is an unlikely detective operating in a foreign culture with unreliable and confusing advice:
“All I’ll say is people in Lagos are not what you think. Everyone is hiding behind a façade that matters more than the truth. We play our roles too well. . . . But we have a phrase: ‘Shine your eyes.’ Nothing here is what it seems.”
Nevertheless, she starts to make progress. However, she has her own family issues at home, and her own skeletons to be dragged out of the cupboard. Claudine’s story, too, is an intriguing mystery.
This is Vanessa Walters’ debut novel for adults. The story has just the right pacing to fit the characters, and the sense of place is powerful. Readers will look forward to her next book.