Woman don suffer oh
Suffer suffer for world (amen)
Enjoy for heaven
What sort of a book review begins with the lyrics of a hit song anyway? Especially when the song in question is Simiʼs Woman? Well, to answer that, one would have to understand that Cheluchi Onyemelukweʼs The Son of the House is a duet dressed up in lyrical prose, and much like the aforementioned hit song, it boldly celebrates womanhood. This melody of a tale unfolds and flows out through the balanced voices (or vocals) of its main protagonists, its lead singers: Nwabulu & Julie.
But, enough about songs and music in general. Instead, “Let’s tell this story properly”, as a character says in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbiʼs Commonwealth prize-winning short story, which inspired the title of this review. And just like in that unforgettable story, there are women at the center of this account. Three women, in this instance.
The first woman is the most important of the three, for without her dogged persistence and willingness to see a manuscript through the trials of rejection and delay and self-doubt, we would never have known about the gift that is The Son of the House. And boy, did her persistence pay off in the end.
Prof. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia—academic, lawyer and health advocate, stunned the literary world with the powerful impact of her debut novel, winning prizes, enjoying massive appeal and earning due praise for the beauty of her storytelling as well as the sensitively intimate portrayal of female lives in Nigeria.
The Son of the House was published by Penguin Random House in 2019, and since then it has gone on to win the Best International Fiction Book Award at the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair, before becoming the inaugural winner of the SprinNG Women Authors Prize as well as a finalist for both The Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature 2021, and the illustrious Scotiabank Giller Prize for Literature in Canada. The icing on the cake came on the 31st of October, 2021, when this astounding debut beat an impressive list of other novels to clinch Africa’s top literary prize: the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG)-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021, worth a whooping $100,000. Not bad for a debut novel, right?
Forget the prizes though, forget all the pomp and glamour. Now, if you were to approach Cheluchi Onyemelukweʼs debut novel in that simple but ancient ritual of reading, if you were to dive into the world portrayed therein, you would find it quite difficult to shake off the pull of Onyemelukweʼs unique voice. There have been so many notable Nigerian literary debuts in the past five or six years alone, and only a few are indubitable masterpieces set to become revered classics in the future. Debut novels like Chigozie Obiomaʼs The Fishermen, Olukorede Yishauʼs In the Name of Our Father, Akwaeke Emeziʼs Freshwater and Abubakar Adam Ibrahimʼs Season of Crimson Blossoms. These illustrious debuts occupy an elite literary space of remarkable appeal and recognition, a space that The Son of the House definitely deserves to be a part of.
Now, let’s not wander too far out and forget about the other women at the centre of this worded sprawl. Nwabulu and Julie. Two women singing the beautiful, heartbreaking song of being daughters, sisters, mothers, lovers and wives. Of loving and dreaming and hurting and fighting and bleeding out a narrative that intricately weaves together so many threaded emotions.
Under Onyemelukweʼs steady, controlled narration, their lives gradually unspool over the course of four decades, starting from the late 1960s, and wending through the shifting currents of cultural absolutes, war and military rule, superstitious beliefs, economic hardship, gender inequality, class divide and modern domesticity.
At the beginning of the novel, it seems merely as if Julie and Nwabulu are two women unfortunately brought into captivity by dangerous kidnappers. Then, as their differing stories flow out and run almost parallel to each other, a pivotal point allows for the revelation that their divergent tributaries are entwined by a tragic fate of devastating ramifications.
Once you manage to get over the glaring irony of the title (for why would a book about women have such a firmly masculine name), you begin to slowly understand and appreciate the significance of the author’s intentions. This is because as different as the lives of Nwabulu and Julie might be, their paths and their very threads of existence are hemmed in by the actions and inactions of men. As such, the title does not just allude to the symbolic primacy of masculinity, it also forces us to contend with the overt and subtle implications of this issue for the women who birth sons, care for brothers and structure their lives around a husband’s steps.
With this, Onyemelukwe reminds us that even though things may have changed relatively, old systems are still retained in newer patterns. This is why a female character tells another in the book that, “It is important for a woman to have a life.”
And yet, The Son of the House does not quite offer all the answers to the questions it raises. It does not need to anyway, because it does enough by tugging at our heartstrings and also demanding an interrogation of our consciences. There are no delusions, no fantastical redemptions or accidental graces. Even the hopes offered are strenuously gained by her charactersʼ determination to strive onwards, to forgive, learn from and survive the constant battle which is the inescapable demand of womanhood.
The range of themes it holds up under a powerful focus also enable us to appreciate and learn from the resilience of women like Nwabulu—who suffer life’s tribulations with quiet dignity and stubborn resolve, just as we are made to understand the tendencies of women like Julie to devise shrewd or cunning strategies through which they can beat life at its own game.
However, for all that is laid bare on the pages of the novel, Onyemelukwe largely succeeds in sustaining a lively narrative with doses of bright humour, often veering towards wry satire in the ways it pokes fun at marital domesticity and the other trappings of a flawed society.
There is more to be said about Onyemelukweʼs mastery of language too, particularly in the careful but exciting measures she uses words and turns of phrases to express a range of emotions without ever coming off as self-indulgent.
We see it in how she unfurls the tendrils of a teenage girlʼs love, weaving innocence together with the forbidden and ultimately achieving levels of nuance and emotional wisdom within mere paragraphs alone. We can also see this mastery in a bold decision to not italicise Igbo words, to not have them bow as if they were somehow othered or inferior. Thus asserting firmly that omugwo, egusi, okpa and abacha are no lesser words than zucchini, pizza, amigo and so many others. This enables Onyemelukweʼs sentences to carry the full weight of their intended purpose, with nothing diluted or forced to be accounted for and explained.
In the firmly skilled grasp of Onyemelukweʼs creative control, we see words sit on a tongueʼs edge before tumbling off, grief eats away at flesh, smiles widen like the Niger and lips tighten into the shape of ube fruits.
Chinua Achebe would have been proud to recognise a kindred spirit in Onyemelukweʼs conscious decision to follow his artistic vision which he famously stated thus: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”
In the end, The Son of the House is not only a love song for womanhood, but also for the Igbo culture, as Cheluchi Onyemelukwe shows fierce pride in the traditional and historical significance of her people, her tribe. And even as it shows that the expansive, undulating grounds of womanhood are often marked by frail hopes, brittle dreams, abusive scars and elusive victories, The Son of the House still celebrates the understated triumphs of shared joys, sisterly circles and female friendships that survive and thrive in the midst of all that is life. It sweetly sums this all up with one line of thought from its closing pages, just before that dizzying conclusion: “We had shared a bond not easily broken, two women doing their best in the world.”