7 Nigerian Novels About Toxic Relationships
Nnamdi Ehirim, author of "Prince of Monkeys," recommends books on the poisonous effects of love
In Nigeria, romance has always been a popular medium for storytelling across all artforms. The first of the three parts of my novel, Prince of Monkeys, involves a budding love between the narrator, Ihechi, and the free spirited Zeenat, a relationship that is steered by Zeenat’s brazen personality and which eventually thrives despite Ihechi’s boyish shyness. But Ihechi’s innocence is quickly sacrificed at the altar of ambition when he develops a transactional relationship with Madame Messalina, a prostitution and political queenpin.
Toxic relationships often go beyond romance. Toxicity could stem from individual differences—whether cultural, economic, political or religious—that yield bitterness, envy, distrust or spite between friends and family. This is the primary theme of my novel, partly drawn from personal experiences, where the biases of backgrounds and loyalties to later associations threaten friendships as individuals within a tight-knit group come of age.
The portrayal of toxic conflict in relationships fascinates me because it asks questions beyond what people can achieve for love, hate, fear, grief or any other emotion. It queries further, asking what people can achieve in spite of these emotions.
To shed a bit more light on the theme, I composed a reading list of my favorite Nigerian books which contain stories of toxic relationships. Some of the protagonists stand against toxic relationships, some use it as a stepping stone to further personal aspirations, others are crushed by its oppressive weight, and some choose to simply navigate through it like water around rocks.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Before encountering Adichie’s work in 2005 when my mother stocked the very first editions of Purple Hibiscus in her Enugu bookstore, there were not too many writers I could read and relate to. Soyinka, Achebe, Emecheta and other pillars of the Nigerian literary canon were not writing about my era, and so, in my mind, being a writer was something for the wisdom and sacredness of old age. Purple Hibiscus destroyed that narrative.
The violently abusive nature of Eugene Achike, Kambili’s father, has become one of the novel’s most critical talking points and hardly needs more belaboring. Less discussed is the overly tender relationship between a fifteen-year-old Kambili and Father Amadi, a Catholic priest at her aunt’s church. They have seemingly pure-hearted interactions, though they harbor feelings for one another. I have spent a fair amount of my life arguing that the problematic nature of such a relationship, considering the age and maturity dynamics at play, is shrouded beneath, and eventually tolerated by most due to, the childishly innocent perspective of the teenage narrator.
Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta
The strength of this novel is not necessarily its plot but the journey and gradual evolution of Enitan Taiwo, the central figure to the story, over 25 years. During this time, her relationships reshape her. She grapples with her mother’s unfolding as a cynical religious zealot following the premature death of her brother. Then she struggles to maintain a marriage that forces her to choose sides between her relationship and her politics, and she is also burdened by general distrust for men rooted in the trauma of witnessing the sexual abuse of her childhood best friend, Sheri. Despite the story being told in Enitan’s voice, Sheri is undoubtedly its heroine. Enitan often feels the need to compromise while Sheri is unrelenting in her resolve to defy the status quo and to demand more from fate than she has been dealt. Their enduring friendship is the redeeming narrative in a tale where all other relationships seem to bring more harm than good.
The Concubine by Elechi Amadi
Published in 1966 as part of the African Writers Series created by Heinemann to provide a platform for postcolonial era African writers to tell their own narratives, Elechi Amadi’s debut novel is an undisputed classic. Long after reading The Concubine, I realised that the fact that its protagonist, Ihuoma, is one of the most cherished characters in Nigerian literature is a major indictment on how we as a people have an endearment towards suffering which goes beyond, and should not be confused with, empathy. While Ihuoma is beautiful and beloved by her entire community, especially for her graciousness in widowhood, she endures suffering—at the hands of people in her village, their traditions and, ultimately, the sea god—for love. It is easier to simply root for her than to confront the precarious reality of a cultural system where women are often powerless victims in their own fate, for the sake of male ego, tradition and the whims of the gods.
Efuru by Flora Nwapa
Another product of the African Writers Series, Efuru is the first published novel by a Nigerian woman and a staple of the African feminist canon. Set in the same period and Igbo society as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it is not as famous and critically reviewed as Achebe’s work but it is arguably just as good and definitely as relevant. Its title character is beautiful and charming yet a perpetual victim of the machinations of the society she lives. Efuru survives two emotionally abusive marriages where she struggles with philandering spouses, self serving in-laws, child loss, and persecution for her inability to bear more children. But through it all, Efuru remains steadfastly loyal to herself, captured best when she says, “Perhaps self-imposed suffering appeals to her. It does not appeal to me. I know I am capable of suffering for greater things. But to suffer for a truant husband, an irresponsible husband like Adizua is to debase suffering. My own suffering will be noble.”
Jagua Nana by Cyprian Ekwensi
Ekwensi’s third novel is yet another postcolonial era narrative from the African Writers Series. Like my novel, Ekwensi’s noir fiction delves into Lagos as if it were a person of its own; worthy of character development, strengths, flaws, and interaction with other humans, of which the most relevant is Jagua Nana, a sex worker whose liberty and aspirations fuel her battle with political and class systems rigged against those who need it most. While good natured, her relationships are almost always transactional and, while justifiable and critical to her survival, they are eventually unsustainable. Also similar to my novel is Ekwensi’s representation of sex workers as worthy of respect, responsible for their own fate and wholly capable of masterminding grand aspirations. The major difference being he wrote this over fifty years ago, when such ideals were more scandalous to suggest.
Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John
Unlike Jagua Nana, John’s debut novel tells of a part of Nigeria more entrenched in poverty and religious fundamentalism. His protagonist, Dantala, is more impressionable and probing than self assured and scheming. Dantala is also not as successful in battling the odds against him, but he is as adept at survival. Born on a Tuesday is an exploration of how people are made malleable in the heated forge of religion and propaganda, how self discovery is often less about the self but more about the friendships we keep and the leaders that guide us and, in a society steeped in stereotypes, how our choice of association is very easily the difference between life and death.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
If the world was coming to an end and I had to preserve a single book to give whoever came after a glimpse into Nigerian life, I would recommend The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives at every chance. With its Nollywood-type plot twists and layered characters that use humor to bulldoze through each of their ordeals in a quintessentially Nigerian way, the novel captures our methods and mannerisms better than most. It also explores themes that are still fiercely debated everywhere from our beer parlors to our Twitter feeds: class systems and the divisive perceptions they perpetuate, family relationships across generations and the reduction of womanhood to gender roles. The book spotlights how we have grown accustomed to simply navigating, instead of combating, this toxicity in our personal lives. In a polygamous household of four wives and seven children, everyone is bound to be a victim. However, the family unit is held together by a common purpose—upholding lies and a grand secret—which is ultimately undone by jealous scheming and a twist of fate.