My Favourite Quote:
Before I met Eugene, I had lived. I had not poked for a man, though there were times when I’d longed for hands to brush across my breasts or even to lift them up, heavy as they were, and admire them lovingly. That was only at night. In the morning, I would get up and go about life like a man. Teach, buy a plot of land, apply to see if I could be one of those sent on full-time, paid study leave to London.
Cheluchi Onuobia-Oyemelukwe, The Son of the House (p130)
Publisher: Parresia Publishers Ltd
Rating: ★★★★★ – Good storytelling – I highly recommend
In the city of Enugu in the 1970s, young Nwabulu dreams of becoming a typist as she endures her employers’ endless chores. Although a housemaid since the age of ten, she is tall and beautiful and in love with a rich man’s son. Educated and privileged, Julie is a modern woman. Living on her own, she is happy to collect the gold jewellery love-struck Eugene brings her, but has no intention of becoming his second wife. When dramatic events straight out of a movie force Nwabulu and Julie into a dank room years later, the two women relate the stories of their lives as they await their fate. Pulsing with vitality and intense human drama, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut is set against four decades of vibrant Nigeria, and celebrates the resilience of women as they navigate and transform what remains a man’s world.
The Son of the House appealed to me for one major reason – The setting. I loved that it was set in Eastern Nigeria and so I got a copy, picked it up and dropped it after few pages. But like Ikhide Ikheloa wrote in his review for Brittle Paper; you put it down but it dares you to forget that it exists. I couldn’t forget and so when I finally picked it up the second time it was marathon. I didn’t put it down until I was done reading.
I like to think of this book as one that is immersed in deep culture. The author does not italicize her words or translate her proverbs. She leaves you to figure out – to google, perhaps. I enjoyed reading THE SON OF THE HOUSE. I loved the themes of war, friendship, culture, traditions, patriarchy, child labour etc. I loved how the author explores the tension between Papa Emma and his wife – giving us a different perspective into domestic violence and how men pass on the shame of being abused to younger girls. I loved how the book looked at depression and mental illness using Julie’s younger brother as the fore character for this;
Unlike so many that we knew my brother had come back from the war. Thinner, yes – his collarbones and his Adam’s apple jutted out – but without injury that was visible to the eye. His smile however, was gone. the joy and the passion with which he has sung war songs when he’d set out as a vibrant twenty-four-year old to join the army in 1968 had gone, a log that had burned brightly and the out, leaving dying embers slowly falling apart. It was the first time my brother had spoken to me from his heart, the way we always did before the war. But I shut him down. And he kept his thoughts inside.
This book is a classic in the way that Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi and Chinua Achebe’s works are. And with classics come cultural lessons and windows that allow for us to question cultural norms. Why is a male child so important? Why the son of the house? Why Urenna? Why Afam? Why Eugene? Why the son? What made Mama Nathan say;
When my husband lived, he beat me until my people threatened to beat him up. Yet, when he died, I knew that life was more difficult for a widow than a woman, even a woman who had married a man who beat her. – p94
What made Julia’s mother say;
Yes, a woman will marry this drunken brother of yours. For love; for money, though God knows best how he will ever make any; for his tall foolishness; or for children. Why? Because he is a man. With a penis between his legs. But you are a woman. With a womb which comes with an expiry date. – p134
The take on religion was also interesting as we see that Nwabulu questioned the existence of God even though she grew up a devout Catholic. I found this very important because it is rare to see a middle-aged Nigerian woman question her faith. There was also the constant conflict between the old and new religion as I like to call it. We see this in the character of Ichie Okeke;
He went to church but did not take the Communion. He was of the firm view that one religion should not come in where another existed and say that it would not share living space. So he worshipped his ancestors and the gods that he said had provided for our village from the era before time, and he also went to church and made sure each of his many children was baptised – p102
The Son of the House does a good job in narrating the experiences of young girls and women in a patriarchal society like Nigeria and the gates of patriarchy they had to burn down to survive. When I first held the book in my arms, I had assumed it was going to be a book about men. I was wrong. It is a book about women – dissecting their traumas and victories. Reading this book, I found myself longing for a time I was not born in – the 70’s and 80’s. And it is in the way Cheluchi tells the story that makes you crave for these memories which you did not experience.
There is wisdom in this book, sandwiched in paragraphs;
A woman must love herself. You must love yourself too. You must take care of yourself now. – p133
Putting your hands in various businesses would tell poverty that you were really serious about not making friends. – p193
Life was hard, but if you took it in little chunks, you could find some chunks that were good. – p204
Forgiveness I found, was easier on the mind, the soul, the spirit, even the body, than bitterness. – p251
Finally, the theme of female intimacy is one that pulled at my heart strings. I am a strong advocate for beautiful relationships between female friends and sisters, and so seeing Chidinma, Nwabulu, Julie and Obiageli navigate their lives while still holding on to shocking secrets made me teary-eyed.
In page 215, Julie says;
We looked at each other – two women over seventy, wrinkled now in face and hands, but as young in mind as we were at sixteen at Girls’ High School Aba. Who had seen each other through the years and covered the grounds of a woman’s life in twentieth-century Africa together. Fought through disappointments, managed the lives of wilful and yet fragile children, survived the infidelities and idiosyncrasies of husbands, the abuses of life, mistakes and failures that came in different shades. We knew each other well, better than the men in our lives did or had cared to know.
In the words of Ronkie B, a member of my Book Club; Yeees! This book is sweeeet!!!!
Buy a copy from Kawebooks
Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic and writer. She works in the areas of health, gender, violence against women ad children and other social issues. She holds a Doctorate degree in Law from Dalhousie University, Canada. She lives in Lagos. The Son of the House is her first work of fiction and an earlier draft of the book was longlisted in Mslexia’s novel writing competition. In October 2019, The Son of the House won the best International Fiction Book Award at the Sharjah International Book Fair 2019.