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Reviews

Ghana Must Go

Clare F Hobba

RGhana-Must-Go.jpgTaiye Selasi

Viking
318pp

Ghana Must Go is the eagerly-awaited first novel by Taiye Selasi.  Even before this novel appeared, Selasi was fêted as a very bright young writer and photographer, with academic credentials from Yale and Oxford, famous for coining the term 'Afropolitan' to describe those like herself, young, beautiful, wealthy, whose success in the arts and business crosses international  boundaries.

The novel recounts the story of a family whose origins are in West Africa. Kweku, the father, is a Ghanaian, from a family so 'dirt poor' that his sister died of treatable TB. Unusually bright at school he is helped to a US scholarship by missionaries. In the States, he meets and marries Nigerian Fola who, like Selasi herself, has some Scottish blood. Together they follow the American dream, working stupendously hard to gain rank and fortune. Kweku becomes an exceptionally skilled surgeon, Fola sacrifices a place at law school in order to raise their four children. Yet in the end, they are cruelly disappointed when a member of a rich, powerful, white family dies on Kweku's operating table. Although they had been advised against the operation, the family blames Kweku, and against all justice, succeed in obtaining his dismissal.

Until now, Kweku's own family has been a close-knit unit, but the shame of what has happened to him drives Kweku away from them. Shame is a fracturing force for other characters too: Fola is felled by the desertion of her husband and fails to protect her twins. Olu, the eldest son, tries to undo his father's failure by following a very similar career, but with even more polished perfection. Sadie, the youngest, is ashamed by the fact that she cannot live up to the beauty and intellectual perfection of the rest of the family, and the twins suffer deep shame at what happened to them while their mother was not watching over them.

To a Christian, the answer to their strife might be forgiveness -accepting God's forgiveness and forgiving themselves for their failures. However, although peace and wholeness is the goal of the characters in Ghana Must Go, they do not seek religious solace and religion, either Christian or traditional Ghanaian, is hardly referenced. There is however, a spiritual character 'who speaks truth' - an ancient Ghanaian called Mr Lamptey who helps Kweku build his dream house. He is the opposite of Kweku, both a gadfly to him and the object of his respect - concerned with integrity, rather than reputation. Kweku, by contrast, trails an invisible 'camera man', documenting his every move.

The emotion that preceded all this destructive shame was of course pride - all of Kweku's family except Sadie glitter with beauty and intelligence and are high achievers. This could have taken away any sympathy we might have for them. Except that they, and Kweku in particular, are portrayed as people trying to outrun a curse. All their efforts are not just to advance themselves, but are also to disprove the negative stereotypes, in particular, of the African male. It is brave of Selasi to name these stereotypes, and only a writer of African origin has any right to do so. Kweku is striving to show that he, an African man, may be an exemplary professional, a faithful husband and loving father, but when he hits the wall of prejudice which damages his career, he is broken and deserts his family.

Traditionally, first novels are often autobiographical, perhaps a combination of it being easier to write what you know and also of having a certain amount of stuff to get off your chest. Like the youngsters in the novel, Selasi is half Nigerian, half Ghanaian. Her father was a surgeon, her mother a paediatrician. Like Taiwo in the novel, she is also one of twins, although Taiwo has a twin brother, Taiye Selasi a twin sister. Before I knew this biographical information, I wondered why Selasi had complicated her novel with so many different countries and nationalities, but for her, this clearly represents normality.

I have seen criticism of the overly poetic language of the early part of the book, but to be weighed against that criticism is the great skill Selasi displays in the tautness of all the different story lines and the management of multiple locations, time periods and voices, which is an extraordinary feat - especially in a first novel. For me the only element which jarred was the dénouement of the ills suffered by the twins while their parents were lost in unhappiness. It had a feeling of being invented to provide a trauma necessary to the plot.

I found the acknowledgements section of the novel of great interest, not only because it fills two pages, not only because it thanks Toni Morrison, but because Selasi begins it, 'I am so very grateful to God.' I guess then that in this book, where the father and then the mother fail and a family is torn apart and the pieces sent flying out, I had wondered whether God might provide the parenting that the characters needed to be whole again. Instead it seems that it is each other that they need to find, and to reaffirm their relationships with one another.

Perhaps Selasi, as a savvy young writer, knows that too much mention of a Christian God might get her work sidelined. Ghana Must Go, however, has received much critical acclaim. It will be interesting to see whether, in future, an increasingly secure Selasi will have more to say about the God to whom she is 'so very grateful'.

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