Books·Giller Prize 2021

The Son of the House

A novel by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia.

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

In the Nigerian city of Enugu, young Nwabulu, a housemaid since the age of ten, dreams of becoming a typist as she endures her employers' endless chores. She is tall and beautiful and in love with a rich man's son.

Educated and privileged, Julie is a modern woman. Living on her own, she is happy to collect the gold jewellery lovestruck Eugene brings her, but has no intention of becoming his second wife.

When a kidnapping forces Nwabulu and Julie into a dank room years later, the two women relate the stories of their lives as they await their fate.

Pulsing with vitality and intense human drama, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia's debut is set against four decades of vibrant Nigeria, celebrating the resilience of women as they navigate and transform what still remains a man's world. (From Dundurn Press)

The Son of the House was on the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist.

Scotiabank Giller Prize jury citation: "It is a delightful gift to find a book you feel fortunate to have read, akin to discovering a treasure. That is the case with The Son of the House. The novel explores issues of patriarchy and classism, themes of friendship and loss through the lenses of two very different yet unexpectedly connected women in Nigeria. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia writes a modern novel with fairytale elements and prose that punches you in the gut, leaving you wonderfully stunned by the time the book is finished."

The novel explores issues of patriarchy and classism, themes of friendship and loss through the lenses of two very different yet unexpectedly connected women in Nigeria.- 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic and writer who divides her time between Lagos and Halifax. The Son of the House is her first novel.

Why Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onubia wrote The Son of a House

"The novel was inspired by a story that my mom told me when she came to visit me in Halifax about 10 years ago. It was a sad story about something that had happened to someone in my extended family. Elements of this story inspired one of my characters in the book. She reminded me of a child that grew up with us, and I was struggling to remember. Then she shared the background of this child, which is somewhat similar to one of my current characters. 

The novel was inspired by a story that my mom told me when she came to visit me in Halifax about 10 years ago.- Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onubia

"What struck me — more than how sad the story was, and how badly treated the mother and the woman in the story were — was how surprised my mother was by my reaction. She told me matter-of-factly that it was in culture: 'It is what it is.'

"It occurred to me that this is the life of many women in Nigeria — we still live in a very patriarchal context. There's still a deep level of injustice."

Read more in her interview with CBC Books.

From the book

I liked the way my father confided in me and entrusted responsibility to me. It made me feel close to him. And so, although I had a deep love for my brother, taking care of him was special because it was something I could do for my father. And I knew this was something important to Papa because, after my brother, my mother had three more girls before her womb seemed to shut up shop, thus leaving my brother an only son for several years. Only sons could carry the family name, could make sure that the name of the family did not get lost.

'See, your name is Afamefuna,' Papa would say to my brother. 'Your other name, Ugonna, the one who will bring honour to his father, carries a similar weight. I have not failed my parents. I know that you will likewise not fail me, not fail the honourable name of our family. And when the time comes, you, and your brothers, should it be God's will to send us more, will carry on the great legacy of our family and pass it on to your own children.'

Afam, diminutive for Afamefuna – 'may my name not be lost' – that was my brother's name. When more boys did not come along immediately, the name became even more significant. His academic strengths and his growing height boded well for the responsibilities that rested on his shoulders. His penchant for fun and frivolity did not.

From The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia published by Dundurn Press Copyright © 2021.

The 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist

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