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Fiction Nigeria

Born in a House of Glass

by (author) Chinenye Emezie

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2024
Nigeria, General, Contemporary Women, Sagas
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2024
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2024
    List Price

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As Udonwa grows, her hidden family history changes her forever.

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 for 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, and tells her that she, named “the peaceful child,” is the one most likely to become a doctor.

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 is engrossing, deeply unsettling, and finally uplifting.

About the author

Chinenye Emezie's short stories and essays have appeared in Africa Book Club, Kalahari Review, Book Lovers Hangout, and Opinion Nigeria. She is the 2013 winner of the Africa Book Club Short Story Competition. Born in a House of Glass is her first novel. Born in Nigeria, she currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Chinenye Emezie's profile page

Excerpt: Born in a House of Glass (by (author) Chinenye Emezie)

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. At birth, I was named Udonwa — the peaceful child. Maybe they wanted me to bring about peace, the peace that would end the war, but who knows what goes on in the minds of adults, especially Mama and Papa. All I know is that I was the intelligent favourite daughter of my warring family. The one who, according to Papa, was most likely to become a doctor.

I cannot say exactly when it started, but I know the cracks of this war became visible one fateful day in the rainy season, while Mama was busy washing clothes outside in the rain. Mama liked to wash clothes every time it poured. She said it was the best time to do it. What she failed to mention, though, was that the torrential rain on her body would often lead to a bout of fever, aches, and pains.

Mama was the invisible pillar of our home while Papa was a man of many facets, a huge man whose hands were nearly as big as the wobbly wooden table in the centre of our near-bare sitting room. Papa was the son of a retired headmaster, a preacher by profession, and a disciplinarian by trade. Sometimes, looking at him, I wondered what Mama had been thinking when she married him, for they were as different as our blazing African sun and the snow in those European countries my school teacher, Mrs. Nwaka, told us about. But I loved them, for they were both storytellers — the one thing they had in common. I loved to sit at their feet and listen to their tales by moonlight. Papa’s stories were the usual folklore full of drama and unnecessary suspense that often made me bite my nails. His favourite story was that of the old woman of a remote village in the forest who sent her granddaughter to fetch water at the stream at midnight, and, unknown to her, men from the spirit world joined her on the journey. Mama’s folktales were often parables, which, more than just telling a story, aimed to impart wisdom to her listeners.

On that fateful day, my elder sister Nneora and I were sitting at Papa’s feet, where we always listened intently to his nightmarish stories. Stories he told to scare us into obedience. My elder brother Lincoln listened absentmindedly a foot away from where we sat; he wasn’t in the least interested in whatever Papa was saying. He knew Papa for whom he thought he was and wasn’t buying any of his niceties.

The day before, Lincoln had told Nneora and me: “Listen, Udo and Nne, one day I’ll deal with this man.”

“Shh … Mama will hear you,” Nneora had said to him.

He’d shrugged. “Let her hear. I meant every word I said. Next time he touches Mama, I’ll skin him alive.”

“But isn’t Papa doing that because he loves Mama?” I’d said.

“What nonsense are you saying, Udonwa — that a man beats his wife to prove his love? What sort of love is that? Anyway, what do you know; you’re too young to understand.”

“Who says I’m too young? I —”

“That’s okay, both of you,” Nneora had cut us short. “Let Mama and Papa handle their lives; it’s none of our business.”

“I won’t give up until —”

His sentence had been left incomplete, as Mama had walked in and we had promptly dispersed.

Now, he looked as if he wanted to murder someone, and there were no guesses as to who his target was. Lincoln’s eyes darted left and right as he circled his feet.

“Stop it, Linc, you’re making me nervous,” I said when I couldn’t handle his fidgeting any longer. He responded by giving me a piercing stare. He was like that, always boiling with unnecessary fury. Justified or unwarranted, he would find ways to intimidate Nneora and me. Lincoln thought he was the commanding officer of our home, but he was not near being even second-in-command. My eldest brother Jefferson, who lived at the seminary, was a more likeable person. He was kind, gentle, and very mature for his age. He treated Nneora and me like his age mates and not subordinates.

“The men of the spirit world walked steadily behind Adaoma, the granddaughter of Nkwocha, the old witch of Akuma village, and each time she turned around to see who it was, she saw nothing until —”

“Mtcheeew … I hate this story! It’s more boring than boredom!” Lincoln hissed as he cut Papa off mid-sentence, convincing me more than ever of his stupidity.

Papa took one look at him and within seconds the room became filled with the smoke from the fire in his eyes. Nneora and I backed away on our bottoms — we knew what it meant and what would follow. When I reached the door, I got up and hid behind the ragged curtain Mama told us she’d bought a week before Nneora’s birth. In the family portrait on the sitting room wall, the curtain was one of beauty and neat, straight lines. Now, I pulled it across my face to hide my small frame, but the useless piece of cloth responded to my effort by ripping. Nneora found her way to the door leading to Mama and Papa’s room, but she knew better than to open it, for we weren’t allowed in there day or night.

Papa’s face resembled a raging furnace. He took the whip from behind Grandpa’s okwa nzu — a clay pot filled with white ash, a symbol of his Ozo chieftaincy — and in one swift move lashed out at Lincoln’s back. He lashed at him three or four more times before Nneora started crying, screaming as loudly as she could for Mama and Grandpa to come. But the heavy downpour of rain, accompanied by the continuous splatter on the upside-down pots Nneora and I had washed earlier, muted her screams. The palm trees in our compound whooshed and prostrated in the strong wind. The noise in the sitting room and the one the ground-worshipping trees were making almost burst my tiny eardrums. I placed my palms on each ear, my eyes shut tight. As fast as the chaos had begun, it gave way to an uneasy silence. The type Papa often told us in his stories preceded the crossing over of spirits into the land of the dead.

When it became too uncomfortable, I opened one eye and looked around. The quietness of the sitting room was as heavy as the clay earthenware in our mud-hut kitchen. I let out my long-held breath but sucked it in again when I saw the shadowy figure on the floor. I blinked open my other eye to get a clearer view and clapped my hands over my mouth at the sight before me. Nneora’s screaming jolted me from my shocked state and I turned to her, trying to speak to her with my eyes. With two swift steps, Papa stepped over Lincoln’s comatose body to where she stood. With one hand, he lifted his whip above his head to render a lash but was stopped by a bony hand.

“What do you think you’re doing? What have these children done to you that made you unleash your wrath on them so?”

“Nnam, stay out of this.”

“No, I won’t. These are my grandchildren and I will not let you kill them because you can’t control your temper.”

“Me, can’t control my temper? Nnam, I’m warning you to stay out of this, otherwise —”

“Otherwise what? Do you think I’m one of your children, eh, Leonard? Listen, I may be old and wrinkled, but I am still your father. You are my only son, Leonard, my only child … and your ugly behaviour towards your family is a disgrace.”

Papa turned to Grandpa, his entire body now burning like his face and his eyes smarting as if sprinkled with hot pepper. In that peppery glazed state, and drowning in yet-unleashed emotions, Papa pushed Grandpa out of his way.

Editorial Reviews

A story of survival and sexual awakenings; and also a gentle love story. A complicated read, much like reality.

Sunday Times (South Africa)