Who’s the real son in “The Son of the House”? — Peju Akande
As a first time reader, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s multiple award winning, The Son of the House turned out to be an intriguing and entertaining piece!
The story could only have been written by a woman. A woman who understands other women when they are scorned; betrayed by their lovers; used and dumped, raped and vilified and when that woman triumphs against all odds, only a woman knows how that truly feels.
But to relegate The Son of the House to just being a woman’s story is to ruin the entire plot because it isn’t only a woman’s story; it’s a story about life, about secrets that won’t remain buried but with a foot out of the grave causing many to stumble.
It begins with the story of two women; Nwabulu and Julie but it is not just these two; there are other characters, principal to the story; like Mama Nkemdilim, like Obiageli, like Daddy and yes, like Urenna and even Chidinma; characters that make the story truly enjoyable to read.
Two women who had been kidnapped and ransom demanded from their families are passing the time by telling each other their stories; the women, who the writer presents in the first person point of view, narrate their personal journeys through life; Nwabulu and Julie are worlds apart; one is younger in her early 50s, the other is older in her 70s. Clearly, they have no business being friends but a tie binds them and as their stories progress we begin to unearth secrets, manipulations, lies and a crime that won’t remain hidden.
What exactly makes the book an interesting read?
It is peppered with nuances and proverbs that reminds one of Chinua Achebe’s novels. The story itself isn’t such a farfetched story; if you believe in fate, which is almost an African thing; if you agree that one’s destiny is certain and cannot be changed, then you can wrap your head around the tale Cheluchi spins in The Son of the House.
Son of the House is the story of Nwabulu, an orphan girl thrown into a world of deception; Nwabulu is at the mercy of a vicious stepmother, Mama Nkemdilim, who feels burdened with a child from her late husband.
Mama Nkemdilim proves to be your typical nasty stepmother; she holds Nwabulu responsible for every ill that comes her way, and even when she is about to send her away as house help to a total stranger in Lagos, Mama Nkemdilim wondered whether she wasn’t doing the orphan a favour, thrusting a “huge opportunity” her way, regardless of the fact that the poor child, Nwabulu was going to work as a slave.
“ …Mama Nkemdilim thought I would be a good choice, (as house help); it would get rid of me. But she worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me. Do you think this is too good for her?’ she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma.”
“Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos.”
And thus, Nwabulu’s fate is sealed!
Mama Nkemdilim is a product of a nasty culture and an environment that encourages her to think the worst of people. As soon as her husband dies, she stops sending Nwabulu to school. “Mama Nkemdili did not see the point when she herself had not gone to school and had still been able to marry a good man. She had not gone to school and yet knew how to do all that a woman of Nwokenta could do – clean, cook, fetch firewood, make fire, make palm oil, farm, sell and bear children…”
She wasn’t married to Nwabulu’s father because he loved her, she was brought in as an appendage; and so, expecting her to rise above the environment she found herself was a tad difficult.
But Mama Nkemdilim proved she was a fighter after all, she chose to raise her five children alone, refusing to marry any of her dead husband’s relatives, knowing that in doing so they would take over the farmland that potentially belonged to her own sons.
Then there is Papa Emma, whom Nwabulu often called Oga, the man whose family Nwabulu first lived at as a house help. Papa Emma is a weakling who took advantage of an orphan child living with him. Nwabulu’s initial sympathy for this man she felt was emasculated, turned to hate. “I felt sorry for Papa Emma. He worked all day at their shop in the market and was welcomed home by Madam’s thundering bellows…in the midst of my endless chores, I pitied the quiet, hulking man, whose lot seemed little better than mine.”
It is saddening that the very person she feels understood her pain, is the one who hurts her in a bad way.
“That night, Oga crept into the store where I slept, amid yam tubers and bags of rice and beans. …he clasped my neck with one hand, fumbling with his zipper with the other and whispered threats when I tried to shout, to struggle, to move my not so eleven year old body from beneath him…”
They were soon caught by Mama Emma, sometimes also referred to as Madam.
“…there stood Madam with a kitchen knife in her hand, her face contorted with rage, looking not at Oga but at me…she advanced towards me and stuck my shoulder, slicing into it like the neck of a Christmas chicken…”
Unfortunately for Nwabulu, like most child victims of sexual assault, she becomes the object of hate, “Unutterable hate shone through Madam’s eyes, almost terrifying as the slashing knife. It electrified my legs and sent me half naked to the door.”
It’s a shameless society that vilifies the victim over the predator. Cheluchi proves once again that this sort of situation only ensures victims remain silent. Nwabulu isn’t pitied for being raped, no one stood up for her. “My story about what had happened did not fetch me anything other than, ‘That is what happens when you try to take another woman’s husband.”
In Cheluchi’s tale, nobody pauses to ask, “How does an 11 year old child take a grown man from his wife?” So Papa Emma, like many of his kind, goes scot free for defiling a minor!
But Nwabulu’s troubles aren’t over, yet. Disgraced and sent back to live with her stepmother in the village, she gets another shot at being a house help for a couple in Enugu where life finally unravels for her; she works with Daddy and Mummy as we would later be introduced to them. At this new place, she finally gets treated like a human being; Mummy, the wife of Daddy, says to Nwabulu, “We will take care of you. We do not mistreat people. You will eat exactly what we eat. In return, you must do what you are told.”
Daddy turns out to be a most interesting character, the one you could put your penny on as a real person in this work of fiction. Daddy’s concern with cleanliness makes him more real than any of the characters in the book. He is that uncle, that brother, we all know from childhood, who suffers from a compulsive disorder; “…living with Daddy and mummy is hard work. Not because the chores were too many…because Daddy suffered from an obsession with perfection that kept me on my toes, unable to relax…I was warned. Sweep, sweep again. Dust, dust again. Flush, flush again. Wash, wash again.”
Daddy keeps not only Nwabulu on her toes but Mummy as well, with his constant nitpicking. “I began to understand that the temperature inside the house rose gradually as the day wore on, approaching evening, and only dipped when Daddy left for work the next day.”
Daddy also presents some kind of comic relief in the story; looking for dust specks under plants and every nook and cranny of the house brings some sort of humour to the story.
But the character that surprises the most is Urenna. The son of the house, an undergrad, who lures Nwabulu the housemaid into a secret sexual dalliance that leads to her getting pregnant.
Nothing prepares the reader for the kind of monster he turns out to be. The moment he is confronted with her pregnancy, Urenna makes a 360 degree turn against Nwabulu, ‘…she claims she is pregnant and you are responsible,’ said Urenna’s mother…”
“What? Laughter escaped him. ‘The housemaid? Mum! I can’t believe you would ask me that.’ He looked like he had never seen me before. ‘Something is wrong. Is she crazy, the housemaid? Do you know me?’ he asked me angrily.”
Urenna had been presented by the narrator as being without guile, being truly in love with Nwabulu; there was no side story that suggested otherwise until she gets pregnant and he immediately distanced himself from her.
But here’s the caveat, for someone who had suffered so much from “privileged people” Nwabulu’s naiveté is galling.
One would think she would be smart enough to know Urenna was only interested in getting under her skirt, despite Chidinma’s warnings that nothing good could come from a house help sleeping with the son of the house but Nwabulu persisted. Not the head strong kind of persistence, the foolish type, one viewing life through rose tinted glasses where nothing is real.
The other argument to put forth in her defence is that there was no one to prepare Nwabulu for the world she was thrust into. There was no mother or father to pull her by the ears and warn her off the likes of Urenna.
Nwabulu is a woman who had been denied love right from birth; so Urenna’s attention was not only flattering, it was blinding.
The rest of the story reads like an almost predictable outcome; the story is full of twists and turns as we read of Nwabulu’s son, rejected by his father but welcomed by two sets of families to carry on their names.
The irony of it all is that a child once rejected, soon becomes the one others want to be their heir. Everyone wants a son in the house.
Will this boy, this son of the house know his own story?
Will his mother, who lost him at infancy find him?
Will those who stole him from his family give him back?
And when all the secrets are revealed, will anyone pay the price for this crime?