- Title: The Son of the House
- Author: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
- Pages: 283 Publisher: Parresia
- Reviewer: Nathaniel Bivan
“On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half-listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thu rhythmically.”
The above paragraph from page 19, narrated by one of two central characters, Nwabulu, in ‘The Son of the House’ sets the ball rolling for what would be a story of love and hate, pain and deceit and not enough retribution for the character I hate the most. But we’ll come to that later.
Picture this: Two women, one old, the other middle-aged, are in a room, bound and stuck with each other’s company for God knows how long. They are prisoners, captured for ransom. How to pass the time? They share their stories. This is how Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s novel introduces itself, a beginning that leaves you with no choice than to continue reading. This, I did.
The two women tell their stories in turns. This is exactly how the author weaves the account of two women who have lived very separate lives. One (Nwabulu) as an orphan who later becomes a house help, the other (Julie), a daughter saddled with the responsibility of making sure her brother, ‘the son of the house,’ ends up as ‘a true and practicing son of the house.’
Nwabulu goes through some horrific experiences in the first home she’s working for, and returns to the village in disgrace. She’s taken in once again by a different family, and returns again, this time not in disgrace, but in shame and humiliation far greater than the first. Back there, in Enugu, she thought she’d found love, but life taught her a big lesson, and now she’s pregnant. This will set the stage for almost every other good and bad deed this story unlocks.
Julie’s case is completely different. She’s the ‘she-devil,’ the kind of woman every wife prays never meets her husband. But she does meet another’s husband, and under pressure to please her mother, marries him.
What’s particularly beautiful about this novel is the language and the way everything unfolds to a climax that’s explosive. However, like some where POV is shifted and there’s a lingering awkwardness or lull in the narration, this one is no different. Nwabulu’s voice is made for storytelling, but Julie’s isn’t, or is simply not as engaging as that of the former. While Nwabulu’s ’s voice carried me along and got me all emotional, I was eager for Julie to just finish hers, except toward the ending when a reader/narrator-like truce seemed to have been struck.
In Nigeria, and especially among the Igbo’s, having a male child is paramount in many families or a wife is made uncomfortable in her own home by her in-laws. Although times have changed and some progress made in the right direction, this still happens today. Set in eastern Nigeria, from the ‘70s down to 2011, ‘The Son of the House’ shows just how desperate a woman can get if made to feel insecure in her singleness, and also how deceitful she can become to satisfy her parents or the society if pushed to the wall. Overnight, she becomes a shadow of her former self, someone forced to fit into a hole society has dug for her. She becomes a ‘beast’ who eventually must take responsibility for everything that befalls her in the end.
After Nwabulu and Juliet’s stories tie together like two naked wires, I realised there’s a big hole I wished had been filled. There’s retribution in this book, but it isn’t enough. Still, this isn’t exactly a flaw in the author’s storytelling but the reality of this life. Not every ‘bad’ person’s downfall happens right before the eyes of those they have wronged, reader included. So, with this thought, I make peace with this story and hope that that boy (and I am certainly not giving any spoilers here) who later became a man and is chauffeur-driven meets his waterloo for what he did to one of the central characters. If not in this book, maybe in a sequel or in the next (fiction) life.