The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
Penguin Random House
Price R229 at takealot.com
When fate intervenes in the lives of two very different women, breaking both their hearts and then bringing them together under the most trying of circumstances, magic happens on the pages of a book.
Julie is born into a middle class, educated family in Enugu in Nigeria. Her parents send her to school and university and she works as a teacher before marrying a rich man and settling down in a big house in a wealthy neighbourhood.
Nwabulu’s family is poor, and her home is rural – a place where girls are considered fortunate if they land a job as a “housemaid”. Education is a luxury not many families can afford and, if girls aren’t married off, they become a burden.
What these two families have in common is the expectation that these women must get married and have lots of children because, as Julie’s mother says, children mean everything.
These are harsh dreams for a woman such as Julie, who has trouble conceiving and then carrying a baby of her own. Eventually, she traps her lover (a well-off married man whose wife gave birth only to girls) into marriage by telling him she’s pregnant. She manages to pull off her outlandish scheme when she is offered a scholarship to England and a child, a little boy who is orphaned.
In contrast, Nwabulu’s mother dies during childbirth, leaving her in the care of her loving father. When he dies, he leaves Nwabulu in the care of his second wife. Life is tough and money is tight and Nwabulu is sent away to Enugu to work as a housemaid, which is regarded as a blessing. Not only do young rural girls get the opportunity to live in an urban house, they are also often given an education. For Nwabulu, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
But fate intervenes in the form of a dashing young man, the son of the well-to-do people living in a house that her friend cleans. When Nwabulu realises she is pregnant she also discovers the devastation of unrequited love. Forsaken by her employers, she is forced to return to the village and face the wrath of her stepmother. The rest of Nwabulu’s life is shaped by the birth and the loss of her first child, as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened.
This is background, not a spoiler. Don’t worry. When we first meet Nwabulu and Julie, they are older. Julie is a well-off woman whose son is about to get married. Nwabulu, also happily married, designs and makes clothes and has built up quite a following. She has moved on and has had two more children, but her life is shaped by the grief of the past.
And then she meets Julie, whose fate is entwined with hers, the rich, overweight old lady who comes to her store to buy clothes for her only son’s wedding.
The Son of the House is filled with drama and loss and hope, weaving together the lives of these women who help each other navigate the patriarchal society that threatens to smother them. As their deepest secrets are revealed, so is their strength and respect for each other.
I loved this book. Not only for the storyline, which – although at times was a bit difficult to follow – was clever and heartbreaking but also for the way in which friendships and love carry these women through some incredibly tragic events.
Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, a lawyer, academic and now novelist, takes you into rural and urban Nigeria – you can smell the food, feel the dust in your eyes and see the colours of the fabrics in Nwabulu’s shop.
It may be set in Nigeria across four decades, but the themes are universal and relevant. The losses women bear – the unbearable toll that miscarriage and childlessness can have, the hole that is left when a child is taken away, the societal demands on women, the dependence on a man for a home, food and material goods ... Onyemelukwe-Onuobia leaves the readers with no choice but to identify with these women, to understand them and to feel their pain. It’s beautifully written and intimate; an incredible first novel and hopefully the first of many.