Spanning across four decades, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel, The Son of the House, is a compact tale of two women of different ages and opposite social class. Nwabulu, a fifty-something-year-old fashion designer, who spent her early years serving as a housemaid is kidnapped in the company of Julie, the septuagenarian, who has lived a life of glamour. They exchange stories to while away time, and there, Julie comes clean about the gravest deceit of her adult life leading to the realization that they have, in the past or present, held strange comforts for each other’s aches.
Winner of Best International Fiction Book Award at the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair, The Son of the House sets in Eastern Nigeria, pointedly and subtly explores many themes rooted in gender inequality and patriarchy. It starts discussions on Igbo traditions - its placement of women and interference with gendered societal expectations. Echoing some of the themes in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Cheluchi compels her readers to consider how strongly patriarchy rides on the back of culture and traditions to assert the liberties of men over women. She celebrates the resilience of the women who dare to forge their paths despite the challenges.
One of the pleasant mysteries in the book is how at first glance, the title suggests a story about a male child, and its first few pages provides the feel of a crime thriller. The reader is, however, soon realizes that the spell-binding rendition is, amongst other things, an exposé on the value of friendships, patriarchal traditions, gender disparity, loss, motherhood, abuse, the schism that exists in class and how it plays out in relationships between oga, madam, and the servant in a typical Nigerian household.
The book also compares, the grace often extended to men and the short end of the stick reserved for womenfolk. When Julie’s mother says of Afam, someone will marry this drunken brother of yours, but to Julie, she says, “...you are a woman with a womb which comes with an expiry date,” she says this because Julie, despite being a responsible schoolteacher, dared to own a car and live alone while being thirty-four and unmarried.
Cheluchi sensitively chronicles women’s lives, acknowledging human fallibility as she explores the many faces of African marriages. She goes from Nwabulu’s admirable marriage, Mummy and Daddy’s dysfunctional household, to Julie and Eugene’s conditional union. Cheluchi dispels stereotypes about African marriages without downplaying the ugly realities that could abide. She briefly touches on the subject of the Nigerian Civil War and its effect on the mental health of survivors like Julie’s brother, Afam, who loses interest in life.
The reader also confronts the acceptance of men like Daddy, a compulsive nitpicker who thrives in criticizing the quality of domestic work rather than roll his sleeves to participate. Nwabulu finds it strange that house number 21 has no maid and the husband often helps with the chores. She, now a madam, is seen to be conscientious towards her girls, giving perspective to real-life situations where survivors of abuse tend to “mother-hen over the younger ones to shield them from suffering.
Cheluchi's fluid prose and unique rendition of a rather complex story won the 2020 SprinNG Women Authors Prize. Although one could easily make arguments against the hurried pace towards its unresolved end and the plausibility of Eugene falling for Julie’s deception, it cannot be ignored that The Son of the House is a brilliant debut that does justice to its many themes. Cheluchi does an impeccable work, while entertaining, educating and appealing to one's sense of morality.
About the SprinNG Women Authors Prize:
The SprinNG Women Authors Prize (#SWAPng) selects a Nigerian Female Author annually - someone who has published a full-length book in print and invests at least N100,000 in purchasing, distributing, and marketing copies of her book nationwide through our sister literary websites and events whom we collaborate with. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s debut novel, The Son of the House won the first prize of N200,000.
For more information: www.sprinng.org/swap