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The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe

‘It did not matter that her husband was violent and she had run away from constant beatings. Her family might come to take their daughter home, but even they knew that the children belonged to her husband. If her family was exceedingly influential and forward-looking and took the children too, everyone reminded them still that the children were the man’s and that, one day, they would return to their father.’

People have different tastes and when it comes to books there is no exception. Most of my friends and I read books that are two planets away from each other, so when I get a recommendation to read a particular book, I take it seriously. I revel in those moments when we find books that we can talk about because I love having book conversations! This book was recommended by my friend Vimbai some time ago. She confidently said ‘You know I would never send you nonsense,’ and her text had me laughing my lungs out. Vimbai is an avid reader and an artist (you can check out her work here). THE SON OF THE HOUSE was written by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, this was my first time reading her work. The prologue is enticing and after reading it I knew I was in for a long ride.

At the heart of this story are two women Nwabulu and Julie who meet under unusual circumstances, but it is this meet up that sparks a light that leads them to opening up about their life stories. While these two women come from different worlds they have a bond that binds them and a dark experience becomes a moment of truth where secrets are exposed. The themes in this book are family, deception, tradition, religion, womanhood and class. Both Julie and Nwabulu have not had it easy in life. One, an orphan whose life goes through a tumultuous tunnel, working as a house maid from a very young age, dealing with a wrathful stepmother, falling pregnant at a young age, being forced into a marriage (to a dead man) and having her son stolen by her mother in law. Another, an educated teacher, an independent woman who loses her father and brother in devastating circumstances, deals with her mother’s depression, marries a man she would have never married on any given day and does not fall pregnant as expected. This story is layered and the role/importance of a son in Nigerian culture is explored. A relationship already forged unknowingly in the past comes to light, ‘No, it was not only Ezinwa that made me pray she would live. It was Julie herself. We had shared a bond not easily broken, two women doing their best in their world.’

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s writing is simple and convincing. I wanted to enjoy the book more but as soon as the ending became predictable at the half mark, my expectations fizzled. This is one good book that can start or contribute to the conversations on the burden placed on women to get married as a sign that they are normal/have really made it in life. It is enraging that there is a culture that calls for girls and women to be married off to a dead man so that the dead man’s family name goes on. ‘You do not know that, by custom, a mother or father can get a wife for a deceased son, especially when that son died prematurely, like Nathan, and therefore did not plant a seed in his family. It is particularly the case when it is an only son. The family name, the family line, needs to continue, you see. There are some who do it too when there is no son at all in the family. They can persuade a daughter to remain within the family and thus not marry, in order to bear children that would bear the father’s name.’ Women are subjected to such nonsense and harmful practices with devastating effects on their lives.

There is also some pressure that puts women in an unbearable position where they are required to bear sons, preferably first, or if not first at least one. As if the women are solely responsible for the outcome? Further, the entitlement that children belong to the father and his family! As if two people did not come together to create those children. Societal expectations and structures bully women at their different levels in society. Julie, an independent woman who is comfortable with her singleness, has to bend in order to give her mother the one thing that she had always wanted for her, marriage. She hopes getting married will give back her mother a sense of purpose, perhaps it does but what is clear is that it makes Julie’s life hazy. What costs do women pay to ‘fit in,’ and to take care of the needs of others? I found the depiction of the relationships among women to be important. Some are encouraging and some are just heartbreaking because it is also other women who guard patriarchal dominance in society. Mama Nkemdilim, Nwabulu’s stepmother, fights against the family elders when her husband dies refusing to be married off to one of the clans men. She is willing and brave enough to stand against the system herself for herself and her children’s benefit but she will not hesitate to throw her stepdaughter right onto the path where the dangerous wheels of patriarchy will inevitably run her over. Obiageli, Julie’s best friend encourages Julie to hold on to a cheating husband. ‘When I mentioned it to Obiageli, she waved it off. She knew about his philandering ways. “He always comes back,” she said by way of reassurance. “Why are you worried?”’ Mama Nathan makes Nwabulu’s life difficult and eventually unbearable by asking her to marry her deceased son. The contribution that she makes is great and one would argue that she orchestrated one of the most evil thefts ever. Over time we have learned that a community that fights against harm with the same goal in mind is likely to succeed.

As heartbreaking as it is, this book is very easy to read. The story is intimate, these two women who are kidnapped decide to get to know each other more through storytelling and that mood in the book captures the reader. It feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between two people. There are some characters that are easy to dislike, e.g Urenna. Julie is just a frustrating character! The book has an abrupt ending, I have no problem with that, I find it befitting. Sometimes as readers we expect authors to give us certain endings, but the truth is author’s give us what they have. What Onyemelukwe-Onuobia has is a story about struggle, courage and the light at the end of the tunnel that truly exists. I can’t wait to see what she serves us next!


Book Details

Title: The Son of the House

Author: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 304

Publisher: Europa Editions (2021)

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