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  • Writer's pictureElle Pedri

House Woman and Forced Arranged Marriages


If you were placed before the fait-accompli of your “marriage” to a stranger, and your life depended on how well you complied with the arrangement, what would you do? Adorah Nworah tackles this question in her debut novel, House Woman, a contemporary thriller published in June 2023 by the Unnamed Press.

I came across House Woman while perusing a list of 2023 psychological thrillers—my favorite genre—and knew I had to devour it. The story is set in sun-splashed Sugar Land, a suburb of Houston where I now live. The topic of the novel—forced arranged marriage, a practice still occurring in many African immigrant communities—is politically incorrect to broach with outsiders. Publishing a whole novel on the subject is a boat-rocking feat! Bravo, Ms. Nworah!

Plot Summary

Ikemefuna, a young Nigerian woman, arrives in Texas from Lagos, head brimming with snapshots of the American Dream. She’ll inhale freedom in America, marry her handsome and rich attorney husband, Nna, live in a sprawling mansion, and open a dance studio.

At first, she lives with Nna’s parents (the Nwosus) in a Texan suburb, aiming to obtain their favor by being a dutiful future daughter-in-law. When Nna visits, she seeks to secure his love. But Ikemefuna soon realizes that gaining Nna’s affection won’t be enough: his parents, who won’t allow her out of their sight, clamor for a grandson with an insistence that grows every day.

As decades-long family secrets emerge, and the weight of the Nwosus’ demands presses upon Ikemefuna, she tries to convince her future husband, who increasingly likes her, to break away from his parents’ influence and protect her. Ultimately, she will have to decide whom to trust in her quest to survive.

Characters

The book begins with a chapter in Nna’s perspective wherein he meets Ikemefuna at this parents’ house for the first time and is intrigued by her physical beauty. After she introduces himself as his wife, he’s at first skeptical, but then goes along with the narrative, to his parents’ delight. Still, he continues to grapple with the meaning of having a “wife” he’s never met before and tries to woo Ikemefuna the traditional American way (by going on dates, buying her gifts, etc.). However, his parents thwart any attempt to take Ikemefuna beyond the family compound and declare Ikemefuna must give him a son to prove her marriageability. As the story progresses, Nna struggles between decency and the growing entitlement over Ikemefuna that his parents fuel. In the end, his choices will determine his and Ikemefuna’s fates.

Ikemefuna was hard to decipher and early in the story, bore some of the telltale signs of an unreliable narrator. She had blackouts during which she became violent (to the point of attempting to strangle Nna’s mother) and also held her share of secrets. In the first half of the book, it is hard to figure out whether a villain lurks within her, but her motivations become clearer as aspects of her past in Lagos are revealed.

Nna’s mother is a villainous character with an obsession for controlling the lives of those around her. She calls herself the chief priestess of a female god named Ala, one she invokes as rationale for the important decisions she imposes upon others. In several instances, she uses violence to force her will upon Ikemefuna. One of the things the author does well is expose the impotence of this god, which is merely the authoritarian mask Nna’s mother uses to manipulate others.

Nna’s father is a passive figure who carries out his wife’s orders and doesn’t exhibit any independent backbone.

Plot

The story begins with a sense of foreboding that ramps up after Ikemefuna has her first blackout episode and the lines between victim and villain blur. There are brief interludes during which Nna, who has taken to liking Ikemefuna, offers a glimmer of hope that he might redeem his and his parents’ actions and let Ikemefuna chart her own course (this thread does not resolve until the end of the story). As it becomes apparent that Ikemefuna is repulsed by Nna yet must continue the charade of a smitten betrothed to plan her escape, any semblance of a happily-ever-after shatters. The rest of the plot becomes a contest between Ikemefuna and the Nwosus for which side will emerge from the brick mansion alive.

I went into the story dreading the body horror elements that some of the early reviewers had mentioned. Although the violence demonstrated during various fights was often stomach-roiling, it was merely the consequence of telling a story about physical abuse. Also, I wondered whether the false god angle with Nna’s mother would take a supernatural turn (minor spoiler, to my relief, it didn’t). There were no graphic sex scenes. However, Ikemefuna’s disgust with Nna comes in the form of a recurrent description of Nna’s male body part, which caused me to scrunch up my face every time.

Writing

I enjoyed the author’s vivid descriptions and punchy use of verbs. I could feel Ikemefuna’s distress as the bare walls of her tiny bedroom closed down upon her and the bars on her window sealed an escape route. The reason for her blackouts was never explained which left me with an unsettled feeling throughout the book, which might have been the author’s intent.

The story went back and forth between present and past, and scenes set in Nigeria were interspersed among those in Texas. Some of the past revelations were unclear and I wondered long after I’d completed the book whether I’d misread sections of the story.

My Takeaway

This book is a new and bold take on the immigrant’s view of the American Dream. Here, the antagonists aren’t the usual challenges of integration into American society but rather the desires within oneself and the machinations of those within one’s own household and community. It’s an honest, non-PC, tale that needed to be recounted.

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