Monday 18 December 2017

Powerful African tale of family and community

Fiction: This House is Not For Sale: A Novel, EC Osondu, Granta, hbk, 192 pages, €22.50

EC Osondu
EC Osondu
This House Is Not For Sale

Reading the title of EC Osondu's first novel, you'd be forgiven for pausing in puzzlement at the seemingly superfluous two words after the colon. To someone familiar with the Nigerian writer's literary form, however, it might just make perfect sense.

Osondu, a former advertising copywriter from Nigeria, won the Caine Prize for African writing - often referred to as the African Booker - for his 2010 short story 'Waiting'. He followed this win with his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Voices of America. This makes This House is Not For Sale Osondu's first foray into the world of novels.

In reality, however, Osondu's offering, stretching to a mere 192 pages, is more of a novella. It has also been structured so that chapters operate as standalone tales rather than parts of an overarching narrative.

The first and final chapters tells us how the 'Family House', property of the mildly sinister but often benevolent patriarch 'Grandpa', came to be and, ultimately, met its end. Sandwiched in between are the stories of an assortment of people - some good, some bad, some strangers, some kin - who stay there, all finding some kind of sanctuary, however temporary, between its walls.

The fable-like tales, spiked with a potent sprinkling of superstition and 'juju', are clearly influenced by the African oral tradition. However, the chapters and the residents they are named after leave the reader in no doubt that Osondu is depicting a modern Nigeria.

There is Uncle Currency, who is tasked with incinerating surplus State cash but decides to 'rescue' the doomed coffers and bury them in the garden. We also meet Brother Julius, who returns from studying 'abroad' and refuses to find a job, preferring to host late-night parties with a local 'Man-Woman'. 'Grandpa' eventually sends him back from where he came, like many of the strays he no longer finds useful.

The novel is narrated by one of the younger members of the household but his is not the only voice. A chorus of judgmental, funny and often caustic 'gossips' provides a running commentary on goings on - a clever device that allows Osondu to bring a wider sphere of knowledge and more adult viewpoint to bear on his stories.

Not all of the stories wrap up neatly, only some seem to have a moral lesson at their core, others don't really seem to have much of a point at all, and none of them operate in anything but splendid isolation from their narrative neighbours. This is bound to irk those readers looking to lose themselves in a single, engrossing story.

Osondu's storytelling prowess may be somewhat restricted by the author's compartmentalisation of his stories, but it is in no way lessened. In simple and sparse prose, Osondu takes you into the heart of a colourful working-class community.

Once you make peace with the fact the novel is in fact a series of short stories, and accept them as the fleeting vignettes they are, then you can properly savour the tasty morsels.

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