Better Never Than Late, Chika Unigwe’s short story collection, is filled with ghosts we pretend do not live with us. Leafing through the pages of the interconnected stories is like peeking into the lives of relatives; haunting stories that chronicle the experiences of Nigerians who fled abroad after religious or economic persecutions. It is easy to understand why these people seek refuge abroad, but it is difficult to swallow the extremes they go to in pursuit of the lives they feel they deserve. You begin to wonder who is more callous: the Nigeria that quashes dreams and burns hope to ashes; the young men who lure naïve Flemish women into loveless marriages for the sole purpose of earning legal stay in Europe; the friends who are abetted in this desperation; or the Nigerian wives – the real wives – who, in their pursuit of elusive middle-class aspirations, masquerade as ‘cousins’ or ‘friends’ before the Flemish wives, counting down the days until the pretend marriage is over and their husbands will return, legal documents and financial recompense in tow. Relationships here are transactional, antiseptic.
The collection is centred around one couple, Prosperous and Agu, who narrowly escape a gruesome ethno-religious riot in Jos, Nigeria, before moving to Belgium, where they meet other desperate and/or persevering Nigerians, who orbit in and out of each other’s circles. Through these other stories, Unigwe strings together a non-linear symphony of what it means to be Nigerian and Black in Belgium, lives bouncing back and forth in time – a perfect coordination of random tributaries gathering into one turbulent pool.
After Agu’s blooming supermarket is razed during the riot in Jos, he convinces his wife Prosperous to abandon her banking job and move to Belgium with him. Prosperous is agreeable, too agreeable; she is very much in love with him and doesn’t need much convincing. They plan to emigrate to the United States or the United Kingdom, but their travel agent is only able to get them into Belgium, where Prosperous meets a rude shock: her Nigerian certificate and work experience mean nothing in this country where Black people don’t typically work as teachers or doctors, and money isn’t readily plucked from low-hanging trees. Prosperous takes up a job as a cleaner and Agu lands a gig in a bread factory, their ambitions squeezed into their tiny, cold apartment, whose kitchen is as narrow as a baby’s cot. Agu cannot imagine returning to Nigeria with nothing. ‘Who goes overseas and returns with just the spittle in their mouth?’ he says, ‘I’d rather die.’
When Oge, a friend of Prosperous and Agu, loses her son in a freak school accident, the shock is so hard-hitting it pulls her and her Flemish husband, Gunter, apart. Gunter’s people perform their version of mourning: they do not wail or scream; they simply dab wet eyes with fine kerchiefs and comfort each other with well-prepared snacks, refilling each other’s tea or coffee. Oge is horrified. In her hometown, a funeral is a carnival of people hauling themselves into the air and crashing against the earth. Grief is melodrama, guttural and unrestrained. She is shocked that Gunter and his people could laugh and talk about their ‘perfect croissant’ and ‘lovely sandwiches’ and ‘chicken spread’. All she wants is for her beautiful boy to be sent off ‘the Nigerian way’. She had warned Gunter years ago, ‘When I die, you’d better tell our children to cry for me the Nigerian way and to send me off the Nigerian way. Or I’ll come back and haunt them all.’ And what the hell does cremation mean? How dare you burn an Igbo body? She glares at him and his people, at their fine manners and quiet eating. Gunter notices her rage, tries to reach out, and she snaps. ‘Go back to your people. I hate all of you!’ Disrespect in one language becomes a reverence in another.
The Nigerians in these stories will do anything to earn a living, feeling no mercy for the naïve who fall prey to their desperation. There is Godwin, who baits the chubby woman, Tine, into a marriage for papers; Gwachi who marries the soft-speaking Flemish woman, Hilde, while his supposed ‘real wife’, Rapu, is married to another Nigerian businessman, Shylock, who agrees to the performance for a fee; there is Bola, whose wife Ego, having endured the cheerlessness of Belgium, leaves him and their child for London to get the kind of job she studied for. Gloom hangs over Belgium like a petulant cloud; the country holds nothing colourful for these hustlers, who are soon bled out of their affection for each other. Self-control is tested. Hard times eat into frazzled nerves. This book is about how to navigate the thorny valley of dead dreams. Some will survive the ordeal; others will tip over the edge, irredeemable. Grief and joy are woven into Better Never Than Late¸ and so intricately done, like fine cornrows, that the reader begins to question where the joy begins and when it becomes grief. And how do you grieve in another language?
Unigwe allows us to digest the happenings in one life before transitioning to another, and each story marinates, so that when we return to the original thread we find we know the characters better; we understand their motivations, their rage, their frustrations. The stories are a chronology of human endurance and our capability to love, tinged with a full dose of hypocrisy and wicked cruelty.
Better Never Than Late is a pastiche of poetic language and Nigerian wistfulness. Unigwe’s sentences dance, sway, and do double, even triple duty. She disciplined the collection into a tight, coiled thing that springs from the first page. I keep returning to the stories, to the magic of her language. She shares different sides to a happening, so that you understand the motivations behind each character’s actions. The result is not a story of people we should feel sorry for, but people who are being people: complex, naïve, stupid, unkind, loving, faithful. Human.