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‘Two women doing their best in their world’ [book review]

A review of The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

It may be titled The Son of the House, but the debut novel by Nigerian author Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a work of literature all about women. Women and, more broadly, Nigeria – a country that undergoes great social and political changes over the course of the narrative, in many ways altering women’s traditional roles and the expectations they and others have for their lives. Weaving personal stories into the national fabric, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia has created a vivid, fascinating portrait of a country in which old values clash with the desire for progress, and individuals – particularly women – must fight to make themselves heard.

Cover image The Son of the House

Though the societal background is extremely important, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is careful to ensure that the individual comes first and foremost in this novel. The two main protagonists, Nwabulu and Julie, come from very different backgrounds and are separated by almost two decades, yet are given an equal chance to tell their own story in the form of a first-person narrative. Following a brief opening section, in which we learn that the two women have been thrust together in unusual circumstances, we are given access first to Nwabulu’s then to Julie’s past, before a final section of alternately narrated chapters brings their now firmly intertwined lives into the present day. Stylistically, not much differentiates their two voices – in both cases Onyemelukwe-Onuobia writes with quiet poise, her prose elegant and unshowy yet capable of conjuring a rich sense of place – but somehow their individual characters still shine through, each one (for this reader, at least) as likeable as the other.

For Nwabulu, an orphaned housemaid from a small rural village, and Julie, a thoroughly modern woman from a middle-class urban background who lives alone and works as a teacher, life in early-1970s Nigeria couldn’t be more different. At least on the face of things – for as we learn more about the events of their lives and begin to compare their stories, it becomes increasingly obvious that they share a lack control over their own destinies, even when they appear to be at their most independent. Though both are determined to work with what they’ve been give to establish a good position for themselves and fulfil their dreams, Nwabulu and Julie are subjected to fateful decisions that are ultimately influenced by their families’ – and society’s – expectations for women. While Julie in particular wants to focus on her career, and even Nwabulu dreams of one day working in government, traditional values centred on marriage and children thwart their plans almost without their being aware of it. Nwabulu’s accidental pregnancy and Julie’s mother’s pressure on her to get married result in twists of fate that will determine the course of both their lives.

While the titular son of the house is an important figure in the novel – he appears in several forms, including as Nwabulu’s lover and Julie’s son, not to mention being the link that binds the two women – Onyemelukwe-Onuobia has not written a novel about misogyny, or even made much of an overt attempt to explore gender inequality. That women are in a disadvantaged position is clear enough from the outset, yet what is far more interesting here is the relationship between the two main characters and the (mainly older) women who surround them. The damage that women can do to one another – albeit often involuntarily, driven by their own circumstances and the social or familial traditions to which they are bound – are espoused by Nwabulu’s treatment at the hands of her relatives and employers, the fraught relationships between Julie, her mother and her husband’s first wife, and, finally, Julie’s unwitting impact on Nwabulu’s life. The final denouement and ambiguous yet hopeful ending read like a plea for women to take better care of one another: in a man’s world, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia seems to be saying, we need to open our eyes and do better than this.

This emphasis on female relationships is underscored by the slightly flat characterisation of the men in the novel, who tend to occupy stereotypical roles: controlling employer, self-centred business mogul, layabout brother, doting husband. Descriptions of their attitudes towards Nwabulu and Julie are often accompanied by an air of resignation, yet Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s refusal to dwell too much on them as characters in their own right is itself perhaps an act of resistance. The entire novel, in fact, could be read as such: by drawing out two ultimately very ordinary lives and setting them against the context of wider society, The Son of the House is a powerful reminder that individual stories matter, that myriad unheard voices just like these need to be listened to more closely.

Over the course of the nearly four decades spanned by the novel, Nwabulu and Julie prove themselves brave and resilient, ‘two women doing their best in their world’ by taking advantage of – and helping to drive – the changes seen by their country. Yet, even in 2011, there is a distinct sense that the modern-day son of the house, just like the son of the house in 1973, is the one who has really profited from these changes. Cars are an important motif in the novel – both Nwabulu and Julie are inordinately proud of theirs, as symbols not only of financial status but of much-needed freedom – yet in a telling scene near the end of the final section, it is the son of the house who escapes an uncomfortable situation simply by getting into his car and driving away. For women, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia seems to be implying, there is still a long road ahead.

Grappling with important human themes yet with a strong focus on its Nigerian setting, The Son of the House is an accomplished blend of the individual and universal. Writing with empathy and a quietly assured style, Onyemelukwe-Onuobia has combined traditional storytelling with a contemporary issue-led narrative to great effect. A rising star in Nigeria and now internationally as well, her voice is one from which we will hopefully hear a lot more in the future.

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is published by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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