The Son of the House
Author: Cheluche Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
Publisher: Regium, Parresia Press Pagination: 283
Reviewer: Henry Akubuiro
In a patriarchal society, male chauvinists tend to think and act like the world begins and ends with them. “It is a man’s world”: how many times have you heard that? Your guess is as good as mine. But have we ever given a thought to the fact that no great man ever comes to this world through the phallus. That means the female gender, too, has a big role to play in the making a great man.
The bins are meant for thrash: let’s stop treating women like throwaway stuffs. But, who cares? If you don’t care, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia cares. In her debut novel, The Son of the House, dehumanising treatment meted to the girl child is on the front burner. From the depraved, arrogant husband to the overzealous mother-in-law and the society itself, the girl child is treated with disdain.
The Son of the House also explores the alarming preference to the boy child in contemporary Nigerian society. Where a male child is yet to arrive to a married couple, the wife is kept under unnecessary pressure, threatened by both mothers-in-law and relatives of the husband. The novel also places an exclamation mark on phallic misdeamanours of married men who exploit their maids, plus sugarcoated young men who put naive, young girls in a family way and abandon them.
Reading Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s novel is like reading a socio-historical evolution of modern Nigerian society. From scenic descriptions and expositions, which tell us about societal convulsions from the 1970s, 80s and beyond, to lifestyles of men and women evidenced in the dresses, cars and houses they own in the intervening period, we get to know about the matrix of the storyline. The author, however, ends the narrative in the post-millennium Nigeria where kidnappers have made life miserable for the citizens, including hardworking women.
Told in the first person point of view, the novel features two major characters –Nwabulu and Julie –two females buffeted by fate and abandoned to gather their lives. Many villains abound here –expectedly, they are men. The male antagonists have a couple of things in common: they come from well-to-do back grounds and they are attracted to women. But herein lies the hard fact: all that glitters isn’t gold. Throughout this narrative, we come across men who seem, on the surface, any woman’s dream; but, beneath their immaculate appearance are conceived fangs meant to shatter dreams.
Like in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the author of The Son of the House appropriates codemixing as one of her techniques, using a modicum of Igbo words (okolobia, okpokwu, akpa akpu, etcetera) and expressions to intersperse the diction of the fiction. These aren’t deliberately cloying, as you can easily deduce what they mean from the context of usage. What the author attempts to do here is localising her narrative via linguistic domestication.
The Son of the House is a work that makes you cry more than once in each chapter. If the author intends to make us feel empathic about the travails of the female narrators and, ultimately females, she has succeeded, for I found myself in the shoes of grieving women desolate of souls. Despite attempts made to bottle the spirits of these women by careless men, we see them rise from the embers of ashes and become positive exemplars, especially Nwabulu.
The novel begins with a prologue in 2011, which takes you to the end of the story to foreshadow the very beginning. Two women –Nwabulu and Julie –have been kidnapped, and they don’t know how they can escape: “We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies” (p.7). When the story ends eventually, the police fails woefully to do their job, as ransom is paid to secure their release.
The novelist guides the reader from the first chapter when the work is set –1972 –as Nwabulu begins her narrative: “I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten” (p.13). No thanks to the wickedness of Mama Nkemdilim, she is sent to Papa Emma and his wife to live in Lagos following the death of her parents. There, she is, unfortunately, deflowered by Papa Emma, and is sent packing by the angry wife.
Her woes don’t end there. She finds another job in Enugu as a maid. There, she meets a nice friend, Chidinma, serving as a maid in another house with a pampered only son, Urenna. She is in primary 6, closing up to the age of seventeen when her romance with Urenna blossoms from naivety to risque affairs until she takes in, with Urenna bolting away and denying his involvement when accosted. Once again, she is bundled back to Nwokenta village.
To make matters worse Mama Nkemdilim conspires with the elders to marry her off to a dead man, Nathan, just for the family tree of the deceased to be kept running wialongside her baby boy. Mama Nathan, the mother-in-law makes life miserable for her and kicks her out, taking away the child.
Julie, on her part, begins her narrative in 1973. She is compelled by societal demands to become the second wife of a wealthy man, Eugene Obiechina, desirous of a baby boy. Of course, Onyemaechi is the first wife with two baby girls and several miscarriages afterwards. But Julie finds herself with a big cross to carry.
As the plot winds up in the third part of the book “In the Hold”, the two women have grown older. Nwabulu has become a successful fashion designer in Enugu, but when she incidentally runs into Urenna, he doesn’t shown any concern for her, needless to say, ask for the whereabouts of his son. Julie is brokenhearted when she gets to find out her husband has impregnated another woman. Here comes another baggage. The plot ends with the kidnap saga and release.
Multiple narrators, as we have in The Son of the House, comes with its own problems, one of which is slowing down the momentum of a narrative, as different characaters have to tell their own stories. But, midway, the reader is compensated in form of a titillating read. This is, no doubt, a remarkable debut by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia.