This House Is Not For Sale
E.C. Osondu’s This House Is Not For Sale was on a list of books published in February by HarperCollins, and I thought it sounded interesting so I asked them for a copy. When I started paging through it, I discovered that it’s a book of related short stories, but reads like a novel with different chapters focusing on different people who come and go from a particular house.
The book begins with a story about “how the house we all called the Family House came into existence,” told by “Grandpa.” He spins a tale of ancient kings and juju, and leaves the readers, if not the children of the house, with a slightly uneasy feeling about the foundation of such a house:
“what my ancestor did not know was that the king had built him the house in order to keep an eye on him. He had instructed his soldiers to kill my ancestor if for any reason the king did not live to a ripe old age. This was how the Family House came to be.”
Each subsequent story gets its title from the name of the one of the inhabitants of the house. Ibe is short for Ibegbunemkaotitojialimchi, and he comes to stay in the house for a while, telling the younger children all sorts of stories, like “if one loved a girl and did not want her to leave you for another boy, then one should mix one’s blood with that of the girl in a blood convenant” and “if you wanted to know all life’s secrets, all you needed to do was read a book called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses….at midnight by the light of a lone red candle.” At the end of the summer, when Ibe and his mother are telling everyone who will listen that his father wants them back in his house, Grandpa is impatient and tells her to “shut up and stop making a fool of herself.”
Gramaphone is an older man who can’t stand to hear music after losing his business because of a feud with a competitor. He is told that he “better start running to the house they call the Family House. You know the big man’s house in the city.” When the feud is finally settled, Gramaphone gets married:
“Grandpa had given him one of the girls who lived in the house. Her father had owed Grandpa some money and she had come to live in the Family House until the debt was owed. We were told that by the time her father was ready to repay the debt the girl said she did not want to return to her father’s house anymore or some other person said that her father had died and nobody bothered to come for the girl after that.”
Gramaphone plays music all night after his wedding. When he had children, “his children soon joined the many children who lived in the Family House and would grow up to work for Grandpa.”
Tata lost three babies at birth and became a witch in opposition to the people who “were calling her a soul stealer.” She uses a magic mirror that will catch “soul stealers and wizards….thieves….any person who commits any crime and denies it.” Although many people come to her for help, they soon become fearful of her power, saying “the mirror has done more harm than good, brothers and sisters and family now view each other with suspicion.” Now that she no longer comes “back home with gifts of money and drinks” soldiers arrive to take her away from the Family House.
Baby is a grown person who was never properly christened with a name because she is brain damaged. When she gets pregnant, Grandpa arranges for her to marry a woman who “would also become the father of the child that was in Baby’s womb when the child was born. Baby would live with her and would meet as many men as she wanted to, but any child she had in the process would be Janet’s child.” This plan is foiled when Baby disappears on her wedding night. She tells a story of being kidnapped and then moves right back into the Family House.
Uncle Currency works at the mint burning old money, but when he begins bringing home bags to the Family House, “the house was repainted in white and there was even a suggestion that it should now be called the Whitehouse, but someone mentioned that another Whitehouse was already in existence in a far-off country.” These improvements are noticed, and so when Currency is asked to resign from his job and subsequently decides to run for public office, Grandpa is asked to tell him to forget it. He does not, and so on the eve of the election, Currency disappears. He reappears a few days later and spends the rest of his life sitting on the porch counting out loud. This does not stop anyone from thinking “there is nothing they will not do in that house for money.” Although the teller of the tales is still innocent, readers are gradually getting a less paternal and scarier picture of “Grandpa.”
The scarier side of living in the Family House continues to emerge with the story of Soja, who was a soldier in a government Environmental Task Force.
“Their job was to ensure that everywhere was clean. Streets swept, gutters and drains cleared, ensure there was no street trading. They patrolled streets and markets and roads and looked along the rail tracks for those who broke the law by selling their goods there.”
Soon, however, the task force became corrupt. “Soja started bringing home baskets of produce, used coats and pants and dresses.” Then “when they seized or confiscated enough DVDs they opened a DVD store; if they seized enough children’s wear they opened a shop to sell these.” Soja acquires a wife by seizing her goods, and she “opened a small store where she sold some of the stuff that was gotten from the raids on traders.”
When Soja gets sick, everyone thinks it is retribution for his actions. Grandpa “said Soja knew what was wrong with him. He should say the truth.” He does not, however, and he dies, leaving money to Grandpa instead of his wife because they were not officially married. When she begs, however, finding herself pregnant with Soja’s child, “Grandpa gave her a small space in front of the Family House where she could fry and sell bean cakes.”
The story of Soja’s posthumous child, Fuebi, is that her mother pimps her out to a rich man whose wife has no boys. When Fuebi gives birth to twin boys, Grandpa bullies the father into taking her into his house with his wife, and everything ends happily when the wife gives birth to a boy “exactly one year later.”
Although seemingly all-powerful, Grandpa seems not all bad. He forbids Uncle Zorro from bringing his concubine and her three children into the house, telling him that he must not abandon his white wife, Trudy, who “followed you all the way from across the seas” and as a result Trudy changes her name to “Tunu” and “established what would later become famous as the Infants Home School.”
In a final story about an inhabitant of the house, Akwete, Grandpa arranges for another man to go to prison in his place. He tells Akwete “you will reward him highly for serving your time on your behalf. You will marry him a wife. You will build him a house. You will set him up in business when he is released.” In this case, however, Grandpa is not a good judge of character and Akwete dies without rewarding the man who went to prison for him.
In the penultimate story, again called Ibe, the narrator asks Ibe to think “about Grandpa and all the things that happened in the house.” He asks what about this person or that story, and Ibe answers, in every case, that Grandpa is kind and generous. Many of the details readers know to be true are denied by Ibe.
In the final story, the abandoned Family House is knocked down by soldiers from the Environmental Task Force, who say it is “sitting on a place that should have a major drain way…..There were whisperings as to whether the Family House would go down or not. Some said that all the juju that lay buried in the house would ensure it didn’t fall. Others said that the evil committed in the house was enough to pull the house down.” At first the bulldozer stalls, but in the end it is restarted and the house goes down.
Grandpa seems like a benevolent God, at least at first, or to a child. The narrator tells Ibe “you imagine a lot of things, not as they were, but as you want them to be.” In the end, though, the adult neighbors think that Grandpa’s abandoned house “casts a dark shadow on our street.” The house itself may not have been for sale, but the people who lived in it had to sell something.