Two women (for whom, it seemed that at every turn, life threw curved balls) have their worlds collide in this debut novel by a first-time author who tells this instantly engaging story with the magic of a gifted storyteller.
The Son of the House starts out with a prologue set in 2011 with its duo protagonists being held captive in a kidnappers’ den. Resigned to whatever fate awaits them, they take turns to tell each other their life story.
Nwabulu, arguably, is dealt a harsher hand by life. Orphaned at a young age, she endures domestic abuse from her step-mother in Nwokenta and soon exchanges that reality for an even more horrid one in Lagos where she is sexually molested by a hen-pecked husband whose household she serves.
Respite comes her way (or so, it seems) when she is sent to Enugu as house help to a more humane family.
Julie, on the other spectrum of life’s emerging cruel joke on our protagonists, is something of a rebel for her day; an independent single woman reluctant to give in to the role assigned her by culture and tradition long before today’s reality derisively renamed her kind slay queens.
In the throes of their seeming capitulation to the hand dealt our protagonists, life unfurls a dark secret that will set their worlds in motion for eventual collision.
This riveting story of two strong women determined to pull themselves up literally by their bootstraps from the morass of their existence, first-time author, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, tells with the mastery of a sage.
It is a simple story but one layered with tales of tragedy and triumph, betrayal and loyalty, resolve-testing challenges and unwavering persistence, love and … that thing you find at the end of betrayal and hardship that sometimes appears to be much stronger than love.
The social issues dealt with in TSOTH resonate with the social issues confronting today’s society. Domestic abuse, child labour, sexual abuse bordering on paedophilia, child theft, gender inequality, patriarchal prejudices abounded in the supposedly good old days as they do today.
The thing that made TSOTH even more riveting was how so real the stories of our protagonists’ lives were. If you haven’t experienced them yourself in real life, you could at least boast of knowing someone whose life mirrored them almost to the minutest detail.
And the characters were just as real as the stories. As you read it and get totally immersed in the lives and stories of the characters, you recall having met a Nwabulu or a Julie, recall knowing a Mama Nkemdilim, remember an encounter with a Eugene Obiechina or a Mama Nathan and experience deja vu over Nwabulu and Urenna’s star-crossed teenage-lovers’ infatuation.
And if you have lived in Enugu, as I have, 042’s famous red soil landscape and neighbourhoods spring up like 3-D structures in a pop-up storybook in almost-virtual reality as you soak in the stories.
As with the story, Cheluchi’s choice of words in telling the story of TSOTH was simple but elegant in simplicity and vivid in imagery. Much like the characters in the story, it was devoid of contrived fluff that would have detracted rather than add to its brilliance.
It was unhurried and suffused with the confidence of a story-teller who is not in doubt of the pull of her story and her ability to tell it. The words took on a life of their own and danced to your delight as you read them.
“I sat outside, fanning myself with Mama Nkemdilim’s akupe, praying for a breeze to miss its route and stop by our house to relieve me from the unrelenting sun and its companion-humidity. (Page 92)
“She sat with us behind the house where we cooked each evening, waiting for the night to come and bring with it supper and sleep”. (Page 93)
“The smell of last night’s ora soup had clung to the walls and now climbed into my nose” (Page 189)
“She only came up to just below my breasts. She would never be tall, I thought. Her legs were short and stocky, planted solidly on the ground in a little bow, like they had no idea why those of us who pursued the heavens with our frame did that.” (Page 189)
When I stepped out, the sun was still trying to make up its mind whether it had to work to yet another day. The car sputtered a little, also trying to decide whether its ten years on earth — that is, if you believed Innocent, the mechanic who had sold it to me — did not qualify it for retirement”. (Pages 190–191)
And in one particularly striking moment of unintended hilarity (albeit in a tragic circumstance), Cheluchi’s words seemed humorously prescient in capturing a catch-phrase that is making quite the buzz on social media lately:
“When we had joined the category of people he and I liked to call ‘the no-leave, no- transfer club’, men and women who had agreed they were stuck with each other — that this was not the end of the world, that they were better off making the most of life together than haranguing each other over flaws that would never change- death snatched away Eugene.” (Page 218)
Aside from its theme of rising in triumph above challenges, TSOTH truly excels in depicting and exploring the themes of bonds of friendship and resilience and astounding strength of its female characters notwithstanding which side of the good or bad spectrum they stand on.
The bond of friendship between Nwabulu and Chidinma, on the one hand, and Julie and Obiageli, on the other hand, were refreshing and inspiring to behold given the prejudice of the widely-held belief that women are their own worst enemies.
Many of the female characters in TSOTH (whether good or bad) were a testimony in strength, resilience and true grit. Nwabulu and Julie were just as representative of this as were Mama Nkemdilim and Mama Nathan (for all their negative traits and actions).
Stuck in a society steeped in abiding patriarchy, the women of TSOTH found a way to rise triumphant one way or the other above the limiting pushback of their patriarchal backgrounds. Long before today’s televised and streamed revolutions of thought, the women of TSOTH, it would seem, paved the way even when, as it were, they had to stoop to conquer.
I do not quite like the title of the book. The story in the book is about the challenges and triumphs of women living against the odds in a patriarchal society. So, titling it The Son of the House comes across as rather appropriative of the efforts and triumphs of these women.
But, isn’t that precisely in keeping with the intent of patriarchy; denying women opportunities for growth and appropriating successes achieved by them despite the odds? When viewed from that perspective, the title seems apt.