Before you get to page one of this book there is a noisy overture. The author has been mentored by Toni Morrison
and endorsed by Salman Rushdie
. She is Yale- and Oxford-educated, half-Nigerian and half-Ghanaian, born in London, raised in Boston, living in Rome
. Her 2005 essay “What Is An Afropolitan?
()” gave a face to a class of sophisticated, cosmopolitan young Africans who defy downtrodden stereotypes. Her short fiction “The Sex Lives of African Girls”
was published in The Best American Short Stories
last year. She has also adapted a screenplay for Alicia Keys. Ghana Must Go
– named after the Nigerian phrase directed at incoming Ghanaian refugees during political unrest in the 80s – is one of the most hyped debuts of recent times.
It stands up to the hype. Taiye Selasi writes with glittering poetic command, a sense of daring, and a deep emotional investment in the lives and transformations of her characters. There is a lot of crying in this novel, lots of corporeal observations of the pain inflicted by social experience and the ties of love. But the tears flow lightly through passages of gorgeous description and psychological investigation, leaving behind a powerful portrait of a broken family – “a family without gravity”
– in the throes of piecing itself back together.
As the novel opens, Kwaku Sai, a Ghanaian surgeon who emigrated to America and later returned home, is dying in the garden of a house whose design he once sketched out on a napkin. The sketch was materialised by an old yogi in swami clothes whom he found living in a perfectly built beachfront treehouse, his cataracts “glowing bluish like the bellies of candle flames”.
The death, by heart attack, is rendered slowly, threaded with Kwaku’s memories of the births of his children, of his unjust professional fall from grace, and of Folasadé, his first wife, who is brought to mind by “dewdrops on grass blades like diamonds flung freely from the pouch of some sprite-god who’d just happened by”
. His second wife, Ama, is sleeping nearby, oblivious, and Fola, her heart broken many years before by Kwaku’s sudden abandonment of her, is in another house, on another beach, smoking cigarettes in solitude.
Across the ocean in America their children learn of the news. They have their own pre-existing pockets of grief. There is Olu, the oldest, responsible, neat, also a surgeon, married in Las Vegas to Ling, a Chinese-American for whom his love knows neither beginning nor end, yet whom he finds it difficult to accept as his family. There are Taiwo and Kehinde, the beautiful hazel-eyed twins, whose relationship and self-image were skewered by a horrific episode in Lagos when they were children. Taiwo, a gifted writer, sulky and aloof, is studying to be a lawyer, but flounders into a scandalous affair with the dean of her college. Kehinde has become a successful painter, hidden away in a warehouse studio in Brooklyn with scars on his wrist. And then there is Sadie, the youngest, her mother’s favourite, the most insecure of all and bulimic with it, studying her hardest at university to shine as brightly as her siblings. It is the reunion of these children, on a Ghanaian beach, towards which the tale unfolds in its opaque and fragmented fashion.
There are faint reminders of Toni Morrison in the intensity and mystery of the storytelling, and Selasi gives her a clear salute in her take on dreadlocks: “black white-girl hair … a Black Power solution to a Bluest Eye problem”
. She continues the “Afropolitan”
dismantling of outdated perceptions of the continent by turning her lens on its differences and idiosyncrasies: the fact that there is less grey, “more yellows”
, in Accra than in Lagos; that the horrors of the Biafran war and other “War-Torn Nations”
are experienced against the background of Beatles posters and “a kente blanket tossed across a king-size bed”
. The overriding issue of poverty is rescued from facelessness by her description of Kwaku’s little sister dying of treatable TB on a raffia mat with her eyes glinting – “still laughing”, “looking back at a world that considered her irrelevant with a look that said she considered the world irrelevant, too”.
But the consciousness of this novel is also firmly grounded in the west, in America, in the rootlessness passed down through generations of immigrants and interpreted in myriad subjectivities. The sheer range of people and places, and the jumping narrative lens, can interfere with the connection between reader and character, yet Selasi lingers with such acute emotional observation in each moment that it is hard not to be drawn in. Sadie is the most compelling of her subjects, in her vulnerability and struggle to accept herself just as she is, but it is the interior of the marriage between Olu and Ling that has the most resonance. Here is a vivid picture of how we become whole – how we find gravity. And here is a novel with a deep understanding of how our childhood experience of family defines to our own detriment our capacity for love in adulthood.