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Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 8:00:00 AM
Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 8:58:15 AM
By SULOSHINI JAHANATH
Sometimes, a writer needs to get out of the way of the story.
TAIYE Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, tells the story of the Sais, a fractured Ghanaian-Nigerian family that comes back together following the death of family patriarch Kweku Sai.
Having been fired (in a racially influenced incident) from his position as a top surgeon in America, Kweku goes back to Ghana, so humiliated that he cannot face his wife and four children.
Wife Fola eventually moves back to Ghana as well, but not to where Kweku is living, while oldest son Olu follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a gifted and skilled surgeon – although he hides his marriage to his long-term same sex partner from everyone in his life.
The youngest child, Sadie, is a vivacious dancer with a photographic memory who later becomes bulimic.
Taiwo and Kehinde, the fraternal twins and middle children, are by far the most complex characters in the book, described as beautiful and gorgeous, but hiding a dark secret from the world.
The problem with Selasi’s writing is that she often times becomes so caught up in describing things or events that the reader gets lost in the sheer wordiness of the narrative.
For example, when Kweku is dying, his attention is caught by the beauty of his garden. Which is then described in great detail – “Now the whole garden glittering, winking and tittering like schoolgirls who hush themselves, blushing, as their beloveds approach: glittering mango tree, monarch, teeming being at the center with her thick bright green leaves and her bright yellow eggs.”
This exhaustingly detailed description makes it very difficult for the reader to stay focused on the fact that the man is actually dying! Instead, the mind wanders and the reader finds herself lost and needing to start again.
This does not help the book’s overall slow start and leaves the reader wondering what exactly Selasi is trying to say.
It also disengages the reader from the characters during what should be emotional and impactful moments.
There are some parts of the book that were also a little difficult to believe, such as Kweku hiding the fact that he had been fired for almost a year – and Fola is none the wiser. In this, I think Selasi seriously short-changed Fola’s character.
Throughout the book, she is described as strong, intelligent, with an indomitable will. Yet, after Kweku’s abandonment, she cannot cope with four children and sends the twins to her half-brother (with whom she definitely does not share a good relationship).
It is difficult to believe that Fola, who had once been offered a full scholarship to law school, didn’t even try to get scholarships for her brilliant and gifted children – this is how they are described – and instead chooses to send them away to her estranged half-brother who is a drug lord.
There are moments like this scattered throughout the book, making it seem that Selasi herself is not too sure about her characters’ personalities and limits. And if the author herself has trouble, how is the reader supposed to understand or empathise with the characters?
The second half of the book is thankfully much more fast-paced than the first, with Selasi attempting to fill in the huge gaps left in the first half.
It almost seems as if there were two different Selasis writing this book – one drawn to elaborate phrases and caught up in the aesthetics of her words, and one who is just trying to tell the story.
To be honest, it would have been better if the latter showed up earlier in the novel because it would have made the story a lot more interesting and gripping.
Ghana Must Go is not a bad book. But alas, it’s not a great book either.
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