25 February 2013

Africa: Ghana Must Go

book review

Taiye Selasi explores the complex dynamics of an African family in a compelling novel that resonates with themes of migration, loss, love and beauty.

Estranged from his children, pining for his ex-wife, and atypically barefoot in the dream home he designed himself, Kweku Sai, the prodigal surgeon pride of Ghana, dies of a heart attack.

This happens in the first tightly coiled sentence of Taiye Selasi's debut novel Ghana Must Go, and then continues to happen over the next 90 pages - a staggering, fragmented introduction that launches the book's big themes of family, loss, migration, and beauty.

The Sai family is a six-member unit. Kewku, the Ghanaian, marries Fola, the Nigerian, after the two of them meet in New England in the United States. Olu is their firstborn, and he's as smart as his father, with a bright future in healthcare. Next come the twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, each one of them beautiful, the latter a famous artist, the former as rudderless as she is gifted. And the youngest is Sadie, rife with ego insecurities and an eating disorder, aching for her mother and cowed by the luminosity of her siblings.

Their unity is strained and their bond broken after Kweku, reeling from a sudden and scandalous loss of employment, mimics the actions of his own father decades before: He deserts his family in shame. Olu loses himself in his studies and a taciturn love with a woman named Ling.

The twins are shipped to Nigeria for a destructive year with their nefarious uncle. A confused and hormonal Sadie blows up at her mother, strikes out on her own, and Fola eventually decamps to Ghana. Harbouring secrets, raw with shame, and scattered on either side of the Atlantic, the family is then drawn back together by Kweku's death.

Family matters

It's this multiplicity of relationships that makes Ghana Must Go so engaging. The family construct is the architecture supporting all the novel's themes and actions. Selasi's prose style, unruly with sentence fragments, reflects not just the broken, shattered heart that seizes up in Kweku's chest, but also the fragmented state of the family itself.

The chronology follows suit. In particular, the pages that topple Kweku wander through time, they swirl around his adoration for his lost family, and boil with huge and gorgeous epiphanies. This is the death of a father who failed his wife and children, aches at their memories, and recognises a searing beauty in the world only as he departs it.

As the story progresses, the disparate settings develop further the notion of family. Nigeria. Ghana. London. New England. All these places actively shape the story's protagonists.

The Biafran War kills Fola's father. Ghana's grinding poverty bloats Kweku with ambition and pride. The children are shaped by their parents of course, but also by the machinations of life in the Western world. And so the concept of family builds from nucleus to nation, even as the stakes mushroom in tandem. It's not hard to then make the leap from nation to region, region to race, and race to humanity.

The novel's big wisdoms are all tangled up in that conceit. The Sai family is projected from its ancestors, the ambitions and failures of its members manifesting anew across generations; the old human adage of history repeating itself gains poignancy here. A readily identifiable thread of human commonality is present when the senior members of the Sai lineage (barring one nasty uncle on Fola's side) push their young to be better, demanding they take up the charge with all the passion and commitment of youth.

That they will fail isn't really the story's promise - it ends before any of them have children of their own - but it's safe to assume that they will because it's a fact of life that everyone does. What the book does promise is that every tragedy has its survivors and every misunderstanding some kind of resolution - a hopeful one if people stick together and confront their pasts.

Selasi's rendering of the African family construct - big and broad and of slowly modernising mores - is more ambiguous, and father figures take the brunt of her criticisms. When Olu approaches Ling's father to seek her hand in marriage, he endures a patronising, racist speech about the philandering tendencies of African men, too many of them with a wife and children abandoned somewhere in their pasts.

Olu bristles at the accusations, but Selasi moves him to recognise the cliché in his own father, who learned it from his own father: Olu's central conflict becomes his emotional distance from Ling. Likewise, Fola's brother Femi, who surrogates as father for the twins during their stay in Nigeria, is a toxic and malevolent force of nature whose legacy of hurt propels Kehinde and Taiwo into their personal conflicts.

But it's exactly this big, messy family construction that ultimately gives succour to the story's characters. Once reunited in Ghana, the surviving Sais close their ranks even as they grow them. Fola welcomes Kweku's second wife into their unit of mourning, and his sisters, almost strangers even to Fola, welcome the group into their homes and help connect the children to their lineage.

A cacophony of characters

At the same time, this bulging mass of characters sometimes weighs the narrative down. It's not that Selasi doesn't wield her craft well: Ghana Must Go is a tight story with awesome symmetry, which is no big shock from a writer whose short fiction debut The Sex Lives of African Girls (Granta 2011) was strong enough to help land her a book deal with Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton even before she'd finished her first novel.

Her agent was able to use the first 100 pages and an outline to shore up plaudits from Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, securing Selasi a two-book deal with the imprint.

In Ghana Must Go, there are upwards of twenty characters, all convincingly fleshed out. But that each of the central six is so immensely burdened and conflicted after a while strains credulity and leans toward melodrama.

Their myriad agonies may serve the story's principles of cyclic harm in family units, but they compete with each other, are spread across too few pages, and lose their emotional resonance when contrasted with the book's climax, which is the big reveal of the sensational ordeal endured by Kehinde and Taiwo.

Even still, the climax is colossal, and it's disturbing enough to focus the hydra-headed narrative. Rather than viewing the six Sais (seven, if we include Ling) as separate characters, it may help to read the family as one complicated entity. Read that way, the multiple conflicts become one progressive and bursting trajectory, and the hopeful message of unity is reinforced.

Paul Carlucci is a Canadian writer and journalist. He's reported from Ghana and Ivory Coast for Think Africa Press, IPS Africa, Al Jazeera English, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Standard.

His short fiction has been published in Canadian journals and magazines, and a collection of his stories will be published by Oberon Press in Fall 2013. Follow him on twitter @PaulCarlucci.

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