July 20, 2011

On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

I was first drawn to On Black Sisters Street by its cover, beautiful against the dark shelves of the New Fiction bays at the bookstore. The novel tells the stories of four women living together in Antwerp's red light district. Ama, Efe, Joyce and Sisi are all illegal immigrants, having been brought to Belgium by Dele, a "big man" in Lagos who makes his money exporting Nigerian women to Europe to work as prostitutes. Though these four women cook together, clean together, and gossip together, they are still almost strangers, having never told one another of their respective pasts. Only when one of them is suddenly murdered do the three remaining women begin to turn to each other, telling their stories and revealing their real names.

The story is told out of order, darting back and forth through the four women's lives, from Nigeria to Sudan to the bright lights of the Vingerlingstraat in Antwerp, where they pose in small window booths, trying to attract customers. Though all four of their stories are different, filled with both small tragedies and great horrors, they hold common threads: poverty, abuse, and dreams of finding success abroad. They are also tied together by Dele, the hulking threat that demands so much of them. Each arrives in Antwerp owing him thirty thousand euros for the cost of transporting them and procuring fake passports. The women struggle to repay their suffocating debts while holding onto dreams of providing for their families back in Lagos or one day owning their own businesses.

There are many parts of On Black Sisters Street that are difficult to read, but Unigwe has managed to bring important issues to the forefront while giving them the context of well-developed, likeable characters. The book ends with the last moments of the murdered woman's life, and the revelation of her killer is both chilling and tragically realistic. In her last pages, Unigwe adds another sinister layer to her portrayal of the systematic enslavement of African women into the European sex trade. This is a book that will stay with me for a while, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Chika Unigwe was born in Nigeria and currently lives in Belgium with her family. In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, Unigwe says, "I am, in the first place, grateful to those whose story it is: the nameless Nigerian sex workers who allowed me into their lives, answering my questions and laughing at my ignorance."

On Black Sisters Street © Chika Unigwe and Random House, 2009.

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