The Nigerwife by Vanessa Walters

In this riveting novel about a young woman’s disappearance, Lagos high society hides personal struggles and larger cultural concerns.

Vanessa Walters’s American debut, The Nigerwife, is a gripping work of suspense, a psychological puzzle, a mystery, and a critique of marriage and high society. The prologue begins: “Nicole often wondered what had happened to the body.” This foreshadowing line refers to a body floating in a trash-filled Lagos lagoon, viewed from the home of a young woman who had recently left London to join her Nigerian-born husband. This narrative perspective, “Nicole, Before,” defines every other chapter of the novel, interspersed with the viewpoint of “Claudine, After.” The pivotal event of these dual timelines is Nicole’s disappearance, which gives the prologue’s opening line new and sinister meaning.

Nicole spent years in Lagos with her husband, Tonye, and their two young sons. She ceased communication with her family in London and formed and dissolved friendships both in and out of a club called the Nigerwives. “The Nigerwives were so different, a pick ‘n’ mix of skin tones, hair textures, body shapes, and facial features, but their stories were one and the same. They had all defied the prides and prejudices of their families, sacrificed friendships and careers and independence, and followed heart and husband to Nigeria for what they believed would be an epic adventure.” For Nicole–and perhaps for other Nigerwives before her–that adventure would end badly. Between fancy dress and art openings, social posturing and boating parties, she struggled to keep her sanity and independence.

In the days after Nicole goes missing, the aunt who raised her travels to Lagos to look for answers. Claudine does not know Tonye’s family well and is dismayed to find how little the family or the police seem to be doing to find Nicole. “She could see [the household help had] been warned not to tell her anything, not even what time of day it was, though they were very respectful clams.” The more she attempts to unravel her estranged niece’s life, the greater her fear that she’s arrived too late. As their timelines progress, Claudine and Nicole each work separately to sort out the family issues that drove them apart, which will not be revealed to readers until the story’s end.

With a sense of foreboding, The Nigerwife considers overlapping loyalties and betrayals and the strict constraints of marriage, family, gender, and culture. Nigeria’s largest city is ruled by glamour, glitz and materialism; motivations for marriage include love, financial and political gain, and cultural compatibility. Various characters criticize Lagos and Nigeria, but this is not the novel’s aim. Rather, Walters’s inexorably paced plot examines institutions and the choices women face. “Nothing compensated for having family around to look out for you. But then, what kind of family?” This engrossing novel both entertains, with the mystery at its heart, and provokes questions that go far beyond Nicole’s personal story.

This review originally ran in the April 7, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 hidden knives.

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