The JRB presents an excerpt from Glass House by Chinenye Emezie.
Penguin Random House, 2021
Read the excerpt:
‘Good evening, Papa.’ I stood up to give him a hug.
He smiled, revealing lines across his forehead that looked as if an angry cat had been playing with its claws on his face. There was also extra flesh hanging from underneath his eyes, extra saggy flesh. He started talking before I could ask if he was okay.
‘You are still going to be a doctor, right?’
I looked at him and my face must have said much more than my mouth because he knew exactly what I was thinking.
‘I’m sure you’re wondering where this question is coming from, but with all the changes happening in this family for some time now, I need to know I still have a child who respects and obeys me.’
Papa kept rubbing his right eye as he spoke. I wanted to tell him to stop—that his rubbing would make the eye puffier and saggier than it already was. But I couldn’t. I just stared at him. I was eleven again, trying to understand what was going on in his mind, trying to figure out if there was a way I could help him.
‘Promise me you’ll study to become a doctor and make sure you’re the best doctor Iruama has ever seen.’
‘I promise, Papa.’
‘So is Awka treating you well?’
He had stopped rubbing his eye and was reaching for a newspaper, his glasses positioned right on the edge of his nose. I waited for him to sit up before answering him. I had wanted him to talk about Grandpa, to talk about Jefferson, to talk about Mama, even Mazi Okoli and his craziness. I expected him to talk about the Church and the bishop, and why he had had to retire so early if he was so bored with life. But what I didn’t expect him to talk about was Awka because there was no Awka talk without the mention of Sister Adaora. I was shocked he cared about what happened to her and how we lived in Awka. But before I could answer, he flipped through several pages of the newspaper and carried on as though he had forgotten he had asked me a question.
‘You are almost through with secondary school now. Before you know it, you’ll be off to university.’
I tried to smile. I knew I wanted to, but my brain told my face not to respond and I just stared blankly at him instead. Did I know who my father was? Who he really was? I wondered as he continued to speak.
‘I hope that man is treating you well. I hope he realises you’re not his maid?’
So he knows? I stared intently at his half-hidden face, only looking away when he put the paper down. I knew Mama was not aware of the situation in Awka. Sister Adaora would rather drink acid and pluck out her eyes than speak to anyone about what happened in her house. I looked up at him again, to see if he was just guessing; perhaps this was a mind game to figure out how I would react. If he had asked me about this three years ago, when I had just started living with Sister Adaora, I certainly would have told him everything. Just like I would do when we were little and Lincoln was mean to me and I wanted him to be punished. But then again, would I have? Uncle Ikemefuna was Sister Adaora’s husband and anything Papa did to him would affect her too … I shook my head. Maybe I wouldn’t have. And the many times I’d told on Lincoln, it had served him right. Papa would have found out, anyway.
‘So does he treat you well? Are you happy living with your sister?’
‘Yes, Papa, I’m happy living there. Don’t I look well?’ I said, trying to smile.
‘I didn’t say you don’t look well. And those are two different things, not so? Someone can look well and still be unhappy.’
He was making more sense than he realised in light of my experience in Awka.
‘You’re right, Papa.’
‘You know you can always talk to me about anything. If you’re tired of living there, you can always come back here. This is your home. It’s just that when your mother and sister conspire to do something, trying to oppose them is like trying to stop a deer from running to a stream of water. The whispers of two women plotting are more powerful than the voices of ten shouting men.’
Papa never spoke in riddles, nor illustrated his words in parables; he had always been a blunt-mouthed fellow. Something we all knew Lincoln got from him. But, unlike Lincoln, he spoke less. Grandpa used to say he would have preferred having a talkative, harmless son than one who spoke with his fists. Papa was what people would refer to as an action man. Perhaps it was Papa’s way of dealing with Grandpa’s death, by trying to sound like him. To say something Grandpa would have said, only that Grandpa would have spoken in Igbo.
‘When is your sister expecting you?’ he asked, interrupting my thoughts.
‘She said she will go somewhere straight after work so that will be around late afternoon. She’s on the early morning shift this week.’
‘Good, then you can accompany me to Nnewisouth.’
‘Ah, Papa, Nnewisouth kwa, what special event is happening there today?’
I laughed as I remembered the last time I had accompanied him there. I had been ten at the time. He’d said a friend of his was having a grand ceremony for his wife’s birthday and he wanted me to go with him. We had had to pass through Akunesiobike, the palm-wine seller’s shop in Afor Oheke, to buy a keg of palm wine, which we’d delivered to his friend. Nnewisouth was a beauty to behold. The array of mansions lined up on the streets we passed through before getting to Chief Aforjulu’s house was the sort available only in big cities. I remembered Papa saying: ‘There are no poor men in this town,’ that everyone was rich or had a family member who was too rich. And that some were so rich, they did not even know how rich they were. At the time I had pondered that statement, wondering how anyone could not know the status of their wealth, or how wealthy they were. Probably, they had given a lot away and had lost count, and their giving brought back huge fortunes to them. Wasn’t it written in the Bible: ‘Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.’ That was what I understood by what Papa had said. But when we had arrived in Nnewisouth that day, I had realised Papa could have saved his breath telling me how rich the people of the town were, how illustrious their sons were, how many of them had their children studying overseas even from primary-school level, for wealth and affluence were all the eyes could see.
- Chinenye Emezie studied Creative Writing at Wits University, and has a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and literary journals. Chinenye is a 2013 winner of the Africa Book Club Short Story Competition and an alumna of the Hedgebrook/Vortext Women Writers’ Workshop, Whidbey Island, USA. Glass House is her first novel.
‘Let me tell you a story. It’s about a war. This war is not the type fought with guns and machetes. It is a family type. A silent war. The type fought in the heart. It began long before I was formed.’
Udonwa’s family is at war—a war of relationships, played out under the tyranny of a monster dad.
Age twelve, Udonwa has a peculiar love of her father, Reverend Leonard Ilechukwu, who favours her but beats his wife and his other children. She sees his good side: after all, he pays the school fees in advance, and tells her that she, named ‘the peaceful child’, is the one most likely to become a doctor in the family.
But luck doesn’t last forever. When her newly married eldest sister suddenly takes her from their family compound in Iruama, Nigeria, to live with her in Awka, Udonwa experiences violence first-hand.
Later, pieces of a sinister picture emerge that shake her life to the core. No longer the person she thought she was, Udonwa launches into a period of extreme change, and parts of her life spiral into chaos as she finds herself torn between her love for her father and an underlying need to free herself.
This vivid family saga, set in Nigeria, is engrossing, deeply unsettling and finally uplifting.