Having previously eschewed reading short stories, 2019 has been a year I’ve found them so enjoyable to read and I’d like to extend my enormous thanks to Layla Mohammed at Cassava Republic for sending me a copy of Chika Unigwe’s collection of short stories, Better Never than Late.
Published by Cassava Republic Press Better Never Than Late is available for purchase through these links.
Better Never Than Late
Better Never Than Late charts the unconventional lives and love affairs of a group of Nigerian migrants, making their way in Belgium. T
he collection is centred around Prosperous and her husband Agu, and the various visitors who gather at their apartment each week.
These interconnected stories explore their struggles and triumphs, from unhappy marriages (of convenience or otherwise), to the pain of homesickness, and the tragic paradox in longing to leave Nigeria so that you may one day return to it.
My Review of Better Never Than Late
Ten interlinked short stories about Nigerians living in Belgium.
Better Never Than Late is a delight and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the slimness of the volume, Chika Unigwe has produced an international microcosm in her stories that I found compelling and engaging.
We have so many racial stereotypes of Nigerian men travelling to Europe for marriages of convenience or a better life, but Chika Unigwe is unafraid to explore those situations with a humour, wit, empathy and clarity that makes her Better Never Than Late stories sing out as they both confirm and challenge such pigeonholing. These are narratives about people who feel real and authentic, particularly when direct speech is used. I loved the smatterings of languages I didn’t understand as it gave me an insight into how the characters felt uprooted and transplanted into another country. Having said that, Chika Unigwe also provides enough skilful explanation of those obscure linguistic moments that there is no loss of fluidity to the writing.
Although the men are frequently the reason why Chika Unigwe’s characters have made their way to Belgium, Better Never Than Late feels a very feminist text at times. Many of the women at first appear to have subservient roles, suppressing their intelligence and qualifications to support the men in their lives, but frequently they are feisty, emotional, manipulative and devious in ways that bring the stories to life. Prosperous especially helps provide a unity to the stories as well as being a detailed and fascinating person in her own right.
The most important aspect of Better Never Than Late for me, however, is the presentation of theme. They may be perfectly crafted fictions, but these stories illustrate the real people behind the headlines and their successes and failures. There’s everything from passion and love to bitterness and jealousy within these pages. Real homesickness, family relationships, ambition and a sense of self that can be developed or easily broken are just some of the themes explored. Of all the stories it was Añuli’s experience in How To Survive a Heatwave that affected me the most because what happens to her could so easily happen to any woman in any country.
In Better Never Than Late Chika Unigwe illustrates that she knows what it is like to be Nigerian, to be Belgian, and to be an outsider in a foreign land. But above all that, these fabulous stories show that she also knows what it means to be human, whoever or wherever we are. I really enjoyed reading Better Never Than Late because I ended the book having been educated, entertained and moved. I recommend it most heartily.
About Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is the author of four novels, including the acclaimed On Black Sisters’ Street (Jonathan Cape, 2009), and winner of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature (2012). In 2014 she was selected as one of the Africa39 list. In 2016, Unigwe was appointed as the Bonderman Professor for Creative Writing at Brown University in Rhode Island, and was judge of the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.