The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Described as a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood and set in Nigeria, I requested this novel via NetGalley earlier this year immediately attracted by the premise and the setting.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, Canada’s Literary Award

Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist Nigerian literary fictionCoincidentally, the day I started reading it, I became aware it was one of the five shortlisted novels for the Canadian literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize on the same day the winner was to be announced.

It didn’t win – that award went to journalist/novelist Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, a novel that examines the current refugee crisis and the lengths to which people will go to find home, safety and belonging – however The Son of the House is already an award winning novel and one that addresses important contemporary issues and one I highly recommend reading.

Review

I really enjoyed The Son of the House right from the opening pages; the intrigue set up by the fact that two women have just been kidnapped from within their car on a residential street, we know nothing about who they are or why this has happened. However, it is not the drama that takes centre stage, it is the lives of the characters, who we will come to know.

These two do know this kind of thing can happen and the woman who drove castigates herself for having taken that particular road.

We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies. The police themselves, people said, would sometimes tell the family of kidnapped persons to go pay the ransom so that harm would not come to their loved one. They had neither the resources nor the serious desire to pursue kidnappers. There was even speculation that the police might be complicit in some kidnappings. So our only hope, like many kidnapping victims in this country, was that our people would come up with the money.

Since they are going to be spending time together, they decide to share their stories. And thus the reader must wait while getting to know these two women and the circumstances that lead to this intersection of their lives.

Their lives are very different, and both equally fascinating and riveting to read about.

Nwabulu, Orphan, Housemaid, Mother

gender women expectations motherhood The Son of the House

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Nwabulu, lost her mother when she was born and her father remarried soon after.

From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy.

Her stepmother resents her and at the first offer, sends her away to serve for a family. Innocent, yet she seems to go from one terrible situation to another, no adult looking out for her, she is vulnerable to the outside world, even within the supposed confines of an employer’s home.

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten.

She finds a situation finally that suits her, only to be disgraced and sent back again to the village. The situation that occurs is the first instance we become aware of the presence and significance of ‘the son of the house’.

I was a housemaid. He was the son of the house. He would not really know what it was like to work in a place and live and sleep there but still know that it was not home. He would not know and I could not put it into words.

Back in the village, an older woman who has lost her son, appears to offer solace to Nwabulu, but her life too revolves around this traditional symbol, and the lengths to which she will go to fulfill it are devastating.

Although this is a story of women, it is also about the intersection of women and the importance, presence and success of this symbol, ‘the son of the house’ to their society and how it impacts their lives as girls, sisters, young women, and as mothers.

Julie, Sister, Unmarried daughter, Second wife

parental authority expectations gender The Son of the House

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The second woman Julie is single and contentedly having an affair with a married man. She has one brother and he is supposed to be the example and support of his family, according to how their father has raised them.

“By joining the church and getting an education,” he continued, “I brought light to my family. It is the duty of each new person in the line to bring something good to the family, to keep the family going.”

However, due to her brother’s problems, her father makes this her responsibility, on his death bed, that she will work to ensure the success of her brother in meeting his familial duties – here again we realise that these stories, these women’s lives revolve in some way around maintaining the tradition, the status of the patriarchy, in the elevation of and presence of ‘the son of the house’.

I would make a better son of the house, I sometimes thought. But what fell to me was not carrying on the family name but ensuring that the one who was to do so succeeded.

Unexpected Friendships, Synchronicity’s

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UKAs their stories unfold, we also discover the importance of these women’s friendships, both of them have been helped by their best female friend at a turning point in their lives and the mystery gradually unfolds as to what has brought these unexpected allies together.

It’s a riveting read and an insight into Nigerian culture and classism, into how two very different women navigate a traditional patriarchal society and not only survive, but the lengths to which they will go to both meet those cultural/societal expectations, to develop resilience, how they find ways to rise beyond it.

I loved the book and thought the characters were realistic and intriguing and the sense of place evocative.

Here’s the fabulous UK cover version, it was published in the UK by my favourite publisher, Europa Editions in May 2021. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Review, Brittle Paper: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House reviewed by Ikhide Ikheloa

Interview, Olongo Africa: I am a child of the 80’s an interview with Uchechukwu Umezurike

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Author

The Son of the House Nigerian LiteratureCheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a Nigerian-Canadian 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.

The Son of the House was shortlisted for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021, and winner of the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair 2019.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

2021 is the centenary year of his birth for Northern Irish writer Brian Moore (1921-1999), academically celebrated at Brian Moore 100 and by interested readers in the year long Brian Moore ReadAlong. I have read and reviewed two titles, Lies of Silence (1990) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and I have The Magician’s Wife (1997) plus No Other Life (1993) still on the shelf.

A Distrustful Reader

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish Literature literary fictionI enjoyed Lies of Silence, however was completely wound up by his treatment of the character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a feeling of indignation in his treatment of the female protagonist that was expounded on by Colm Tóibín who admitted:

“that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never”

I came to The Doctor’s Wife, another novel in which Moore again takes on the voice and attempts to get into the mind of a female protagonist, with significant caution and a not unreasonable dose of distrust.

The Plot: Awaiting her husband’s arrival on holiday in France, Sheila Redden, quiet, middle-aged doctor’s wife from Northern Ireland, suddenly finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with a young American ten years her junior.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

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In a short prelude to the first chapter, Shelia’s brother arrives in Paris and from what we glean Shelia has disappeared and there is a letter waiting for her at a friend Peg’s apartment, from a T. Lowry in the US. Shelia’s brother phones this man in America; he says is he is sorry, he can’t help.

The prelude creates an element of intrigue, an unnecessary addition reading it in 2021, though it may have affected readers differently in 1976, by what it implied. That no one knows where she is. That we know where she is not.

Backing Up to the Beginning

Due to his commitments as a Doctor, Shelia’s husband delays his departure for their holiday, they are returning to the Mediterranean  where they honeymooned sixteen years ago. Sheila travels on alone to Paris.

Staying in Paris with her friend Peg, Sheila’s emotions are overwhelmed by the mix of frustration at her husband and the nervous excitement of being in the city with her confident friend, who introduces Ivo, her lover four years younger than herself. Sheila is in awe of Peg’s way of life, the result of having continued her education, pursued a career, travel.

She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me,  stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.’

It is through Ivo she becomes acquainted with Tom, the two keep each company while waiting for Peg. Tom is taking a year after his Anglo-Irish Lit studies at Trinity in Dublin to think about his next step. Sheila enjoys being able to talk with Tom on a subject she is virtually forbidden to elsewhere; speaking animatedly about literature to a man at a party has being the cause of reprimand by her husband in the past. Trying to engage with her husband in conversation fails every time these days.

While initially petulant and annoyed with her husband for putting his work ahead of their holiday, at a certain point Sheila begins to will him not to come. The distance and solitude heightens her feelings towards everything. She is at the beginning of developing a kind of resistance, even if that shows itself through what appears to be recklessness. Eventually she will embrace it, learn from it and change.

Before anything is even hinted at with this young man, while still in that isolated wonder of being alone in Paris, with her friend, engaging in a social life, and interesting conversation, she asks herself:

What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back? page 42

Looking back at this now, it is clear that this thought indicated a turning point for Sheila, who throughout the novel is referred to as Mrs Redden, unless represented in dialogue when she is Sheila. From here she departs Paris to Cap Ferrat, knowing she has at least a few days until her husband may or may not join her. As she gets out of the hotel bath, the telephone rings.

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

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The rest of the story portrays Sheila’s continued attempts to resist what is occurring, until she doesn’t. The focus is always on her, on her thoughts, her decisions, her mind. It is not a novel that looks into the mind of a 27 year old man.

Ironically, the young man is objectified, something more common to woman characters, but here Brian Moore diverges and flips the coin, reducing HIM to an object of sexual pleasure and gratification. Though he doesn’t go so far as to emasculate him, he risks the character of Tom being perceived as inauthentic, for the very reasons Tóibín above, referred to.

Men too, were expected to behave in certain ways, even while conducting illicit affairs. However, Tom is a post-war baby, a baby boomer, he is of a different generation and from another culture, it is quite normal that his behaviour will be perceived by some as childish, ill-considered, unrealistic. Personally, I could believe it. Sheila was born before the war, she was indeed a Traditionalist. In a sense then, her behaviour and responses are the more radical.

Moore however is clear, he elicits only her thoughts, provoking her to express them aloud, to hear herself speak. What she has to say is far more interesting.

‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘Some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

When it becomes clear what Sheila is contemplating, the men in her life, her husband and her brother will resort to the kind of tools that men in power, medical men were able to use to exercise control over what they considered a wayward woman. There’s a history of mental illness in Sheila’s family, something her husband doesn’t hesitate to consider using to his advantage. It is a scary moment.

Understanding Women

It is to his credit, that Brian Moore takes a different approach twenty years after writing about Judith Hearne. This time he pursues other perspectives, making thought provoking choices that engage the reader. 

Female empowerment Women

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It reads like a kind of thriller because she acts so out of convention and the longer she does so, the more likely it seems there is a possibility she might indeed be upending her life.  The reader can feel she is hovering between two choices. The detail with which her encounters are shared and the response of her family to them, increase this duality.

I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I did read it with that level of distrust and was therefore surprised to see how much the author’s perception of a woman character had developed. Although, here too, I had a sense of the author almost writing this in collaboration, I imagined him discussing and arguing this premise with his women friends, or was he reflecting on his own doomed affair? Who knows, but he left me wanting to know more, wanting to pursue Sheila further in her adventure towards liberation.

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?