‘— That house is no ordinary house. Ordinary house, indeed — […]
— People say that at night you could hear voices and sometimes cries emanating from that house. Even though no one lives there anymore.
— It casts a dark shadow on our street. They should demolish it so that light will take over from darkness.
The sinister house this anonymous chorus of voices is describing is the Family House, a Brazilian-style house in an unnamed coastal West African town (which can really only be Lagos) ruled over by Grandpa, the family patriarch who is often cruel, sometimes generous. The novel follows the lives of a number of inhabitants and hangers-on of the Family House, with each short chapter devoted to a single character’s story: among them Ndozo, one of Grandpa’s traders who stole money from him and was cast out of the house; the cowboy and Western-style story of Cash and Rotate, the competing owners of ‘I Sold in Cash Provision Store’ and ‘Rotate Provision and Fancy Store’; the simple-minded Baby who is raped and falls pregnant, and whom Grandpa consequently attempts to marry off to another woman.
This House is Not For Sale knowingly stretches the definition of a novel: it can be read as a series of short stories woven together by the ever-present figure of the Family House. The writing is so taut that it could almost be read as poetry rendered into prose, but in the sense of being condensed, almost Raymond Carver-esque, rather than pretentious (Osondu’s writing is also at times vigorous, down-to-earth and funny). Although not quite experimental, the stories are sparsely told, often left hanging. They reflect the fragmentary texture of city life; we glimpse each character’s life, and then move on.
Though ostensibly a (semi-)realist novel based in near-contemporary times, and featuring vivid, true-to-life characters, the novel opens and closes with an epic tone, mythologizing the rise and fall of the Family House. To my mind, This House is Not For Sale is haunted by the Yoruba novels of D.O. Fagunwa (perhaps not as a direct influence, but more as a matter of a shared atmosphere, narrative style and interest in the conventions of oral storytelling). The strange, the cruel and the grotesque make frequent appearances in Osondu’s novel, as do the hunters, stories of shape-shifting human-animal transformations, episodic fragments, the stories within stories and framing with multiple narratives that are the staples of Fagunwa’s novels.
Within this context, it’s not hard for the Family House to ooze quiet malevolence, ready to stain everyone it comes into contact with. And as such This House is Not For Sale tempts us into reading it as an allegory for the state of the Nigerian nation. Its cast of characters brings together people from across Nigeria, from cities and villages, male and female, young and old. The novel touches on some of the big, familiar themes in Nigerian writing: the city, poverty, disease, religion, corruption, gender and sexuality. It’s dark and in places sinister: almost no-one survives the Family House without misfortune, few characters are without serious flaws, and those who do not fight their corner may be exploited mercilessly (such as Uwa, whom Grandpa sends to prison for several years to take the place of another inhabitant of the house).
But at the same time, this is not an entirely despairing novel about the state of Nigeria. Just as Grandpa has his moments of mercy, so too lightness, humanity, generosity and humour sometimes find space in the novel. Another book This House is Not For Sale reminded me of was Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief; its use of vignettes, its sense of both the lightness and darkness in Lagos and in humanity more generally, shares to some extent Cole’s complex vision of Lagos.
As This House is Not For Sale draws to an end, the narrator and his cousin Ibe discuss the stories that have been told:
And what about the woman that was stripped naked and had her head shaved and was paraded around the town? Ibe said the woman was only enacting a ritual drama.
Ibe’s perspective, we soon realise, is not one the reader necessarily wants to trust. But it is nonetheless true that we could read these characters’ lives as scenes in a ‘drama’, playing roles scripted by forces larger than themselves. The novel reflects on how these stories that shape our lives get told. In the penultimate chapter, Ibe explains the power of names:
Ibe said I must give the house a befitting name. We all called it the Family House, I said. By what other name should I call it? You must give the house a name that evokes prestige, a name that will make people respect the people who lived in the house and the house itself.
‘Give the house a good name because a good name is better than gold’, Ibe adds. Many of the characters have names obviously linked to their stories, such as Uncle Currency, whose job is to burn old Naira notes. Significant moments in the narrative are marked by characters’ names changing, from Cash to Gramophone, or Baby to Patience. Names, then, come from the stories we tell and the lives we lead. But Ibe, who suggests giving the Family House a ‘good name’, is engaged in re-writing history; in the penultimate chapter he briefly re-tells some of the stories we’ve just heard in a far more positive light. We don’t necessarily know whose version of the story is truer – although we presume it is the narrator’s more nuanced version.
This House is Not For Sale teems with the stories of the Family House’s inhabitants, reminding me a little of Abimbola Adunni Adelakun’s Under the Brown Rusted Roofs in its drive to represent the sheer multiplicity of lives lived in one place, although without that novel’s sense of connectedness and narrative coherence. Sometimes This House is Not For Sale stretches credulity in both the variety of lives imagined under one roof and the extremity of their stories, but then this is not a novel designed to be read with just a realist eye.
E.C. Osondu will be appearing at this year’s Africa Writes festival in London later this week. Africa Writes is the UK’s largest festival and celebration of African literature and is organised by the Royal African Society. The festival will run from Friday 3rd July – Sunday 5th July at the British Library. Africa Writes 2015 will bring together over 70 authors, publishers and critics including Ellah Allfrey, A. Igoni Barrett, Petina Gappah, Jackie Kay and E. C. Osondu.
E. C. Osondu will appear as part of:
The 2015 Caine Prize Conversation
Saturday 4 July
16.45 – 17.45, FREE
The shortlist for the 2015 Caine Prize, an award associated with mapping new directions in contemporary African writing, this year includes one past winner and two previously shortlisted writers. Join the five shortlisted authors – Segun Afolabi, Elnathan John, F. T. Kola, Masande Ntshanga, Namwali Serpell – in conversation with 2009 winner E. C. Osondu and Guardian First Book Award winner Petina Gappah.
New Nigerian Fiction
Sunday 5 July
12.15 – 13.15, FREE
With A. Igoni Barrett, Irenosen Okojie, E. C. Osondu and Obinna Udenwe. Chaired by Ike Anya, co-founder TEDxEuston.
Launching four debut novels, Ike Anya talks to writers about their new releases and asks what new Nigerian fiction is. The session takes us from A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass (Chatto & Windus) – a Kafka-esque satire of a Lagos man who wakes one morning to find he has turned into a white man – to the dual narrative of contemporary London and 18th century Benin in Irenosen Okojie’sButterfly Fish (Jacaranda); from the story of African family and community told through one remarkable house in E. C. Osondu’s This House is Not for Sale (Granta) to the exploration of terrorism, politics and religion in contemporary Nigeria of Obinna Udenwe’s Satans and Shaitans (Jacaranda).