Review of Chika Unigwe’s “Better Never Than Late” – Brian Chikwava
Chika Unigwe’s short story collection, Better Never Than Late, takes its title from a story set in Nigeria and about dangerous religious convictions and the abuse of faith.
The title also speaks to the pathological condition of the émigré laid bare in the rest of the collection. Why? Because exile has a way of teasing out of people an obsessive fastidiousness about ordering one’s life. About making sure all is in order.
In that context ‘better never than late’, absurd as it may sound, can be the appropriate response to an absurd environment that punishes the émigré’s slightest deviation from the expected. Submit to that regime and you find yourself knocked sideways and up and down until, eventually broken, you have no clue about what is happening to you. Just like the unfortunate victim of the title story.
The first story in this collection sets the tone. Rapu’s husband has married a German woman for his papers but he is unable to legally bring Rapu to Europe. So, he goes through the elaborate route of arranging for her to marry a Nigerian fixer who lives in Belgium so that she can be brought to Europe. Then she has to wait for her husband to find his way out of his situation with the German woman. The story’s plot unfolds with exquisite precision of timing.
Rapu and her husband’s heartbreaking situation arises from the gap between the kind of shape their lives have taken and what they could be if they had the right papers. As with many an émigré’s story, drama kicks off when the two vigorously try to marshal their separate lives into one, against a system that’s pulling them one way or the other. Add to the mix plain old human foibles, flaws like self-deceit and capriciousness, and the exile is quickly caged in a situation in which getting a firm foothold on life is a miracle.
Rapu, as the story’s title, suggests is transfigured completely by her experience. It is a liberating outcome but also one that comes with an eye-watering price tag. It is also a result that captures that moral agency which flows out of the crucible the émigré inhabits: better never than late. Hard-boiled self-preservation.
The spine of the collection comes in the form of a couple, Prosperous and Agu, whose relationship is one of the more steady and enduring ones, with the former as the moral compass of the stories. The collection benefits hugely from the couple’s reappearance in different stories, allowing the reader to experience a cumulation of knowledge and understanding of their journey and struggles. Like Rapu, the couple are transfigured though their change is a more gradual one. Their story breaks the collection out delightfully and enables it to flower and go beyond it being merely about African migrants chasing papers to regularise their existence in Europe.
There is love here aplenty — brief or enduring, superficial or deep. There is courtship, pride held through humiliating circumstances and delightful moments of pure surprise: the disbelief of a man when his new girlfriend fixes his broken car for him.
It is by turns a brutally honest, funny and sad collection, with a wistful thread that goes through it as protagonists consciously or unconsciously wonder if the choices they have made were worth it.
Here, it is impossible not to wonder if Unigwe is inviting the reader to try to engage with such questions ourselves. With these very filmic stories, Unigwe may have set herself up as the voice of the African émigré’s experience in Europe.