On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

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On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: In Antwerp, three African sex workers mourn the death of sister prostitute, Sisi. Through intertwined stories, we learn how each woman's choices and circumstances led her to Belgium. This is an intriguing page-turner of a debut novel by a vivid storyteller – an easy read on a difficult subject.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224085304

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Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce are prostitutes, working in Antwerp's red-light district. They arrived in Belgium through the auspices of Dele, a grasping, talent-spotting Lagos pimp, who arranges illegal entry into Europe for young women in return for a large percentage of their earnings for many years.

Chika Unigwe's debut novel opens with three of the women preparing for a night touting their wares in the display windows of Antwerp. Their roommate and sister prostitute, Sisi, is missing, and we shortly learn that she has been found murdered. The rest of the novel comprises Sisi's history and experiences immediately prior to her death, interspersed with Ama, Efe and Joyce's stories of the lives that led them to their current situation. On Black Sisters' Street reads like a collection of short stories, with Unigwe giving each woman a living, breathing, believable character and a page-turning tale.

While researching her novel, Unigwe interviewed Antwerp's sex workers and her diligence has paid off in all the details she is able to provide. For example, many of Belgium's African prostitutes are university graduates – Sisi's frustration at finding a decent job after graduation is what eventually leads her to sell her body in Europe. While the women in this novel are undoubtedly exploited, for the most part, they have made a willing choice to continue with this life, as a means to a better future. Efe is a single mother, and her earnings support her child back home; Ama was abused as a child and will do what she must to gain financial independence; Joyce dreams of setting up a school back home in Nigeria.

Sisi's death reminds us of the risks they take in their twilight world with its pimps, madams and bribery, yet this is not a novel without hope. Instead, the reader is left with the impression of capable, intelligent, ambitious women. Their humanity shines through as they tap their windows, squashed into tacky outfits, vying for custom that will give them their chance for a better life.

Thanks to the nice people at Jonathan Cape for sending On Black Sisters' Street to Bookbag. Unigwe has considerable talent at bringing characters to life and has given us a glimpse into a hidden world. It was a pleasure to read Unigwe's fresh and distinctive voice.

For further reading, The Blue Notebook by James A Levine is the harrowing story of a 15-year-old prostitute on Mumbai's notorious Street of Cages and makes a fascinating contrast to On Black Sisters' Street.

Buy On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe at Amazon.com.


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