IN AN EARLIER book by Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, the protagonist, confronted with her husband's disapproval, "prayed that the two of them would be strong enough to accept civilisation into their relationship." Now in Emecheta's eighth novel, Double Yoke, Ete Kamba and Nko, two students at the University of Calabar in Nigeria, wrestle with the same conflict created by the tension between tradition and modernity and its effects on identity, love, and marriage.
Emecheta, the most prolific and probably the best known woman writer from tropical Africa, has been living in England since 1962. Her first documentary novels, In the Ditch (1972) and Second Class Citizen (1974), were autobiographical, describing her struggle against poor living conditions and a failing marriage in London, and her experiences with the British welfare system as she raised her five children alone and studied for a degree in sociology. Double Yoke embodies the same energetic, candid, and ubiquitous voice of these earlier works, but it lacks their touching immediacy. Like the themes it considers, it is a mixture, the simple narrative laced with ethnographic and sociological details as well as comment on the foibles and potentials of a rapidly changing society. Even as it is propelled by the natural vitality of Emecheta's writing, it is limited by structural problems.
The story follows the quarrel-filled courtship of Ete and Nko as they try to come to terms with their different perceptions of love and marriage. They are both from small villages and both ambitious, but he is the more traditional of the two. When he first meets Nko as a teen ager, he thinks, "he would like her to be younger than he was and to be in a lower grade at school . . . ; after seeing the way his parents lived, he would like to live like that. Not as poor, perhaps, but with a woman who would be like his mother, but with this difference; she must be well educated. A very quiet and submissive woman, a good cook, a good listener, a good worker, a good mother with a good education to match. But her education must be a little less than his own, otherwise they would start talking on the same level."
Nko, however, will not accept this inequality. She wants an education and a husband as well, but not one who will govern her behavior. She refuses to reassure him that she was a virgin when they first made love, a question which drives him to seek advice from the Reverend Professor Ikot, a spiritual and educational leader. Ikot in turn appoints himself Nko's advisor and offers her the choice of sleeping with him or losing her degree. Nko, feeling men have forced her into this position, decides to use "bottom power" to get what she wants. The results are mixed and painful, but in the end Miss Buleweo, Ete's creative writing teacher, helps him to understand his feelings and accept his responsibility as a modern African man who is able to love his woman regardless of her ability to fit traditional molds.
The novel's perspective is strongly feminist, a mature feminism sensitive to the struggle of both men and women to free themselves from double standards and hyprocrisy. An older woman student pinpoints the dilemma of Nko and her friends: " 'Here feminism means everything the society says is bad in women. Independence, outspokenness, immorality, all the ills you can think of. So even the educated ones who are classically feminist and liberated in their attitudes and behavior, will come round and say to you, 'but I am gentle and not the pushful type.' "
While such problems are true for most women, the world Emecheta describes is specifically Nigerian and considerably different from the pre-independence Africa of earlier novelists such as Chinua Achebe. Elements of village life remain, but here the local celebration depicted is a thanksgiving service and party for a young woman who has passed her hair- dressing exams. Lengthy passages discuss the unreliability of electrical power, the difficulty of crossing auto-clogged roads through a major market, or the educated Nigerian's penchant for titles: "the office was shared by two women. The first woman . . . was a Chief, she was a Mrs, she was a Dr, her father's name seemed to be Iyang, and her married name was Bassey. She was determined to print all this information on her door, and to cap it all she was a Christian because the legend went on to challenge the reader by saying, 'do you believe in miracles? I am one' . . . The poor door looked like the page of a newspaper." Not only are the details different, but in a more basic sense so are the values. Characters like Ete and Nko don't question modernity so much as wonder how to incorporate it into their own lives.
Although Double Yoke gives us a view of this new Nigeria, it seems to be a view of the surface. One feels the pain of Ete and Nko, but not the underlying complexity of their experience or its deep connections to the communal experience of their country. The sociological passages too often intrude on the narrative, rather than make these connections. Emecheta can write with grace, insight, and humor, but she also use stock descriptions and awkward language, and the ending is abrupt, leaving several incidents of consequence undeveloped or unresolved. In the end, Double Yoke is engaging but uneven, its simplicity of language, structure and characterization not always a mark of clarity but a mark of a turning unexplored.