The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

This suspenseful and compassionate first novel by lawyer and scholar Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia describes the intersecting destinies of two women separated by class and social standing in modern Nigeria.

In 2011, in the city of Enugu, Nwabulu and Julie find themselves being held for ransom by a group of violent thugs. To distract from the danger, and to pass the time while waiting for the ransom to be paid, they narrate their life stories. These narratives form the bulk of Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s novel. Both are tales of profound struggle that begin in the early 1970s.

Nwabulu grows up poor in a rural village called Nwikenta. From the outset, her life is one of misfortune and drudgery. Her mother dies giving birth to her, her father remarries. By the time she is ten her father has also died and Nwabulu is left in the care of a short-tempered, superstitious stepmother who sends her to Lagos to work as a housemaid. In Lagos she labours to the point of exhaustion and is sexually molested. She returns home but is not welcome and is quickly sent away again, this time to Enugu. In Enugu the work is also hard, but she attends school and makes friends in the community. However, now in her teens, she makes a fateful mistake: seduced by an older boy, the son of wealthy neighbours, she becomes pregnant and is compelled to return home to Nwikenta in disgrace. Facing diminished prospects, Nwabulu is forced into a marriage of necessity and gives birth to a son, Ezinwa, who against her expectations steals her heart. But happiness and security elude her once again. The baby is taken away and, driven by desperation, she flees an untenable situation and throws herself upon the mercy of strangers.

The Son of the House is…an inspiring story of two indomitable women who find ways to rise above the limitations imposed by a repressive society.”

Julie’s story is very different, but also involves a series of agonizing choices. Her family is modern and privileged; her father is a civil servant, a Catholic convert who renounced tribalism. Julie is educated. By the early 1970s she is living an independent, self-sufficient life, but is emotionally unfulfilled. As she enters her thirties, her dalliance with a successful married businessman, Eugene, assumes great significance in her life as it dawns on her that what she desires most is a family of her own. Her desperation mounting, she resorts to a risky and brazenly deceitful gambit to assure that Eugene leaves his first wife and their two children and marries her. The marriage is rocky, but it lasts. Many years pass. Eugene’s business ventures have thrived and their son, Afam, has taken full advantage of the good fortune and opportunities that have come his way.

In 2011 the event that brings Julie and Nwabulu together is Afam’s approaching wedding. Nwabulu, through perseverance and inner strength, has become a successful tailor and dressmaker. Julie engages her to produce attire for the ceremony, and over the course of numerous consultations, a warmly intimate rapport evolves. When they are taken hostage and tell their stories, a shocking revelation links them even more closely together but also threatens to tear them apart.

The story that Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia tells in The Son of the House is neither easy nor simple. As a novelist, she makes no concessions to the squeamishness of North American readers. The Nigeria we encounter in these pages is vividly depicted, but it is unromanticized and often cruel. This is a place where corruption is endemic, people suffer unjustly and die needlessly, children are raped, and women are plucked off the street and held for ransom. Nwabulu’s account of growing up unwanted in a culture that values male over female children is nothing short of harrowing. As women, she and Julie live with the effects of gender inequality on an unremitting basis: every moment of the day they are subject to the whims of the men in their life, compelled to endure all variety of appalling behaviour and brutality because for a woman it is better to be married to someone who beats you than to not be married at all.

But The Son of the House is also an inspiring story of two indomitable women who find ways to rise above the limitations imposed by a repressive society. We cheer Julie and Nwabulu on, through their pain, torment and hardship. The risk they take is a spirited refusal to remain silent and invisible in a world dominated by men. The reward they reap for battling a system stacked against them is the privilege of being able to do what they want and see their children succeed. And that is certainly worth celebrating.

WINNER of the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair 2019

A Miramichi Reader “Best Fiction of 2021” choice!

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic, and writer. She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children. Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

  • Publisher : Dundurn Press (May 4 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1459747089
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1459747081

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.