Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House

When I read the original Parresia imprint of Cheluchi’s The Son of the House almost two years ago, it made quite an impression. I quickly wrote a review which mysteriously disappeared by the time I woke up in the morning. I assure you I didn’t compose it in my dream. One often writes a review in the heat of the moment, when one can still hear the laughter or cries of the characters. When the responses to the aesthetic stimuli are still pinging. Once the moment is gone, it is difficult to muster the impressions and put them down as vividly. Except if one is paid to do it, LOL. But now that she has won the 2021 NLNG Prize for Literature – to my utmost delight – I would like to bring it all back.

Now, I’m usually carried away by the sheer use of elegant language even if there is no storyline. But in this case, there is a captivating story or rather two stories that flow into each other like two streams meeting at a confluence to continue as one river. No human life is an unbranching stream. Our stories are connected in tributaries and branches. Other story-bearing people are characters in our own stories just like we are characters – hero or villain – in other people’s. The Son of the House is the riveting tale of the grit and determination of women to triumph in a society swimming in pernicious patriarchy.

I remember some early reviewers subtly objecting to the title of the book. They suggest that it inadvertently pays tribute to the masculine gender while the book is really about women. I object to their objection. They miss the point that the two women in the story go through all the travails on account of the son-of-the-house mentality. It is about privileging the son of the house over the women no matter what violence – physical or emotional – is inflicted on the women in consequence.

In Nwabulu’s case, after her mother’s death, her father yields to people’s pressure to marry another woman in order just to have a son instead of loving and educating the girl that he already has. The new wife becomes a scourge in Nwabulu’s life. Her life takes an even worse turn when her father dies, and she is at the mercy of her wicked mother-in-law. She sends her to Lagos to be a house girl where she is serially raped by a man of the house. She gets badly beaten and is eventually sent back to the village when the man’s wife discovers what has been happening. She is sent to Enugu to be a house girl in another house. There she gets seduced by Urenna, the scion of a well-to-do family and another privileged son of the house. Of course, she gets shut out of his life when she gets pregnant and is kicked out of a promising life. She’s shattered. When she gives birth, her son is taken from her to be given to a family in need of a son of the house.

Even Julie, the second woman in the story gets married to Obiechina because of his desire for a son of the house. The perfidy that she hatches and executes to acquire her own son of the house when Providence does not smile on her. Ultimately, the two women’s lives get connected by a son of the house.

The craft is excellent and her use of language is measured, restrained, and without frills or flounces. The language possesses a charming simplicity and is always apt and effective. Even the pace is perfect. She neither tarries unnecessarily nor whips up an unduly frenetic pace. She’s so absorbed in the actual story-telling that she rarely has the time to fondle words and showboat or lapse into distracting philosophical meditations. She tells the story the way the raconteurs of old would have delivered it, without the props and artifices of written language.

I was delighted by her choice not to italicise Nigerian words in a Nigerian story. So, she leaves egusi, garri, okpa, ichaka, oga uko, okpokwu and umunna proudly unbowed, erect like the rest of the words. Imagine if, worse than italicising, she had replaced egusi with the culturally meaningless ‘melon seeds’ like some misguided writers have done in the past. And the way she deftly translates more difficult ones like ndi ozo and olu oyibo. All the same, I would suggest that a glossary of the untranslated words be included in subsequent editions. Also delectable is her judicious use of Igbo proverbs and folk wisdom, even if in translation, as pioneered admirably by Achebe and his generation of writers.

The novel opens with the two women locked together in a kidnap, proceeds by Nwabulu telling her story followed by Julie, the two of them taking us back several years into the past and comes full circle when they reach the present. The narrative technique helps to build up an ensnaring suspense that is not too tense as not to be pleasurable.

Cheluchi mentioned in an interview that the novel is based on a story vouchsafed to her by her mother. She took the story and masterfully crafted it into a novel. She has created literature out of a mundane story that could have been lost forever. She has done this with a deftness reminiscent of Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Chukwuemeka Ike and Elechi Amadi. A new storyteller has boomed in the village square with a clear voice. We look forward to hearing this voice over and over again.

2 thoughts on “Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House

  1. Thank you for returning to write this excellent and considered review. I totally agree with you about the title and I think it is one if the gifts of the reading experience – the point while reading where the significance and symbolism of ‘the son of the house’ hits the reader, and then you can’t unknow it, you see it everywhere. It reminds you as a reader that there is more than just plot and characters, there are the cultural and societal forces lurking between the lines.

    I also like the way she used a dramatic event to pull the reader in, creating intrigue and mystery on the opening pages, but then refusing to allow drama to dictate the flow of the story. Some will resist this, but it’s like a parent insisting you eat the dinner first, dessert later. We get to know the characters, understand their lives and decisions, the people around them, witness their growing resilience in overcoming obstacles.

    Such a deserved win of the prizes and the finalist in the Canadian literary award. I hope she continues to write, what an inspiring woman.


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