Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

This book has gotten a tremendous amount of good word of mouth, and after reading it I can see why.  It is a contemporary sprawling family saga, with a little bit of magical realism sprinkled in.  Full of nostalgia, melancholy, sadness and redemption, like any unhappy family, troubled in its own way.  And way troubled… the twins Kehinde and Taiwo, troubled. The older son Olu, troubled, and the youngest, Sadie, quite troubled.  Mother Fola, very troubled.  And Dad Kweku… well it isn’t a spoiler to say that he’s in plenty of trouble, because the whole first part of the book is his set of flashbacks as he dies of a heart attack.  Benson, the family friend (a sly nod to Benson the White House butler?) is the only competent person around.  Well, there is also the mysterious carpenter.So there is plenty of plot; lots of soap opera to keep you reading.

The writing I found quirky.  Selasi mixes third person narration with first person self-interrogation.  There is loads of cultural commentary on the upper-class expat African “identity” and reflection of “those still there” … commentary that runs from the glib to profoundly lyrical to quietly insightful.

It isn’t a real novel, for me, in the way these sprawling semi-fantastic Eggers-Franzen style novels never are: too much happens, the characters are too big…. the lives are too self-important.  People feel a lot all the time.  Or they feel nothing all the time.  Big events of their own making are always happening.  Different I suppose from the quieter novels I tend to prefer where big events happen to people.  (In Alan Garner’s Stone Quartet, none of the characters are ever aware, really, that they are doing anything: the reader has to construct something profound out of the mundane.)

So I guess I recommend… depends on your taste.   Fiction with Africa-related themes continues to mature and expand beyond the niche audience of people like me, which is a nice thing to see.  Here’s a decent review of Ghana Must Go by Nell Freudenberger in the New York Times:

The Africans who left their countries in the 1960s and ’70s, the “brain drain” Selasi refers to in her 2005 essay “Bye-Bye Babar,” were dutiful immigrants who sought out secure careers in medicine, banking and law. Their accomplished and glamorous children, whom Selasi calls “Afropolitans,” are doing all sorts of other things. I think there is a large audience eager to hear their stories — so eager that agents, editors and publishers may have rushed a young writer’s book into print before it was ready. That’s a shame, because Selasi’s ambition — to show her readers not “Africa” but one African family, authors of their own achievements and failures — is one that can be applauded no matter what accent you give the word.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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