Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel opens with an interesting paragraph:
“Everything Job Ogbonnaya knew about sex he learnt from American Pornography. So on their first unchaperoned meeting, Job rushed his new wife, splitting her thing body against the papered wall of their lavish honeymoon suite at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Job tore at her lacy pink panties and only released his lips from her face to haltingly shout, “You-are-the-dirty-slut-girl.”
The rest of this chapter chronicles the remaining events of the night. Ify, Job’s new wife, hits him with sandals, screams at him to leave her alone, cries, threatens to leave. It ends with the couple being unable to even look at each other. Perhaps, it is the perfect introduction for what will be an utterly gratifying novel, right?
Before Ify joins her husband abroad, Job has managed to use the many years spent in America to mire himself in a spectacular mess. He married a haggard looking, extortionist white woman named Cheryl in an illegal arrangement to obtain papers and become citizen of America, after which he filed for divorce.
Despite their separation, it became an issue of once married, always married, and Cheryl would use this to blackmail Job and milk him for money over the years.
Mr And Mrs Doctor follows the arranged marriage of Job and Ify in Nigeria, travels across oceans and empties into Nebraska, the setting for their travails as an immigrant couple, and meanders through their histories while flowing towards what future they could carve for themselves, together in this new land.
It is this movement of time that enables the reader to grasp the intricacies woven into the lives of the characters, and the origins that sponsor them.
Job migrates to America when he is nineteen, on a student visa, aiming to study medicine. He never makes it to medical school. He doesn’t even graduate college. Job continued to accept to accept money for tuition from his father in Nigeria, propagating the belief that he was still on course with the dreams they had for him.
Back home they firmly believed he became a medical doctor as planned. When Job’s family arranges his marriage to Ify after he selected her from a stack of photographs sent to him, they introduce him as a doctor. After Ify joins Job in America, she continues to believe he is a medical doctor in spite of the collage of poverty that is their apartment, with its peeling paint, and hole ridden walls, and rats, and cockroaches, and too small space.
The novel dwells a lot on pretenses and man’s tendency to pile make up on the face of reality until it assumes an appearance in line with illusionary expectations. Ify writes home to her aunty to tell her about the wonders she enjoys in this new country. She goes to great imaginative lengths to describe their house as a mansion with so many rooms, low-swinging chandeliers, and impossible beauty, and televisions the size of the walls.
“You would not recognize me for the skinny girl who left home.”
Job will not be outdone. He promises Ify that they will one day build a hospital back home where he would be the doctor and she would be the nurse. He makes conscious efforts to leave the house with a white doctor’s coat, drives off to a reasonable distance before parking to change into his scrubs, and going to his job as at the hospital as a Nurse’s Assistant. Even after Job’s lies are exposed, they both continue toss the charades like a game of catch.
The first irreconcilable leap in the story introduces itself with the revelation of Ify’s pregnancy. The reader is taken aback and forced to revisit previous pages for a clue as to how that could have happened, surely, it couldn’t be an immaculate conception. The reader will find no reprieve anywhere.
As the novel unravels, Job and Ify’s experience varying levels of cultural shock, which leaves little option of reconciliation between American tawdriness and ways they were used to back home. There seems to be no relativity to how they view race and racial identity.
This is demonstrated in the conversations between a police officer and Job the night he is robbed by a group of black boys; “Yes, they were my color, but no, not like me.”
Could this be an attempt to posit that for Job, and many others, the construct of race is only an ancillary appendage; he is Nigerian first, American second, black if anything is left over?
Emeka and his wife Gladys, Job’s only friends in America, showcase a mildly different spectrum of immigrants life. When juxtaposed, the two couples are in perpetual contrast. Emeka and Gladys are comfortably middle class, educated with degrees to show for it, married for love, with six daughters. Job and Ify are always a few cheques away from welfare, cohabitation has not softened the awkwardness or emotional distance of their arranged marriage. While Ify is uncultured, Gladys is presented as the epitome of poise and class that Ify should aspire to.
Job desperately clings to dignity and respect of his person which leads him to make fatuous decisions at every turn. He bitterly resents acts that treat him unjustly. Although, Emeka believes there are three things a man must do in Nigeria: be born there, marry there, and get buried there – America was only a stepping stone, he asserts himself through obsequiousness in his interactions with white people. Often undermining himself and ridiculing Job to cater to white pride.
There is an unexplained tension between the friends that simmers and spills into their encounters, and remains unresolved throughout the novel.
The birth of Victor, Job and Ify’s son unlocks a new chapter in the lives of the characters. Job who for a long time has been planning to return to school with the tuition money he saved up for his medical degree, decides his son would become the doctor instead, abruptly ending a major discrepancy in the novel without resolution. Ify comes into motherhood with the realization that her dreams of becoming a nurse someday, will never mature into reality. Gladys whose search for a male child, resulted to her distaste, in six daughters and one stillbirth son, is displeased. Emeka remains, stoically unaffected.
The next series of plot gaps extend back and forth in time. Job and Ify now occupy a new house, Emeka and Gladys are mysteriously absent from their lives. Victor is five years old and on his way to death. But before his premature sojourn to the grace, him and his mother will run into a younger boy that looks a lot like Victor.
Ify will lose her connection to Nigeria, she will not feel like she belongs there anymore. She will not belong in America too. When her son dies, that will be the last of her belonging to anything.
The characters of Emeka and Gladys will be resurrected. Ify will see the younger boy who looked like her son again. He is Gladys’ son. He is also Job’s son. Job’s affair with his former wife, Cheryl will come to light. The reader will lose track of the tracks he has lost and sigh. Again.
Julie Iromuanya’s Mr And Mrs Doctor is a novel that attempts to tackle polychotomous issues such as immigration, friendship, marriage, cultural crudity, sexism, misogyny, and the pressure of familial expectations, however, the disjointedness of the writing leaves the story punctuated with annoyances that corrode these attempts.
I found myself flipping pages in rapid succession, with endured interest to see if the riotous narrative arrives at a congruence at some point in the novel, and also to hasten the speed of this cup in passing over me.
Julie Iromuanya seems to be clawing at some form of resolution at the end, if only for one of the characters. The narrative is spent, the final pages fall away, melting into obscurity, retaining only a meagre portion of its initial exuberance highlighted in that first page. Perhaps, this dissatisfaction was intended all along.
Written by Precious Arinze for @TheReadClub
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