Hamish Hamilton, 2013. $30. 318 pp.
The title of Taiye Selasi‘s virtuosic debut novel, Ghana Must Go, reveals several layers of meaning. It connotes a cheap plastic travel bag used by Africans and others on the move, and so suggests dynamism and possibility. Yet it also stands for something tragic — the forced deportation of over a million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983. And so this alliterative phrase speaks to the book’s core theme: the flourishing and fragmentation of a family on the move.
Ghana Must Go is the tale of Kweku Sai, a surgeon of poor Ghanain extraction working in the US, and his family. His wife, Folasadé Savage, is a Nigerian refugee who forwent a promising law career to support her husband and their four children. Their triumphant story of immigrant achievement — buying a good suburban home, sending the children to fine schools — is shattered when Kweku, afflicted with shame, abruptly leaves his family. Having been wrongfully dismissed from his hospital post because a wealthy patron died on his operating table in a risky procedure, he embarks on a secret court battle against his employer only to squander the family’s savings and ultimately be found out by his son. Unable to face this defeat, he simply drives away and doesn’t come back.
Like a bomb, this unexpected loss breaks the family apart, and the children are variously sent off by their mother to college and the homes of relatives, leaving only the youngest in her devastated hands. In this way each member is set on a lonely, difficult path that comes to yoke them all with emotional burdens and a deficit in family ties.
But when Kweku, now living in Accra, drops dead in middle age, Folasadé and the four children must go to Ghana and bury him. This leads each on a poignant emotional journey through memories of a shattered family, and ultimately forces them to address the fraught relations they have developed with each other over the years.
This work is compelling from all angles. Ghana Must Go was much-anticipated, and it doesn’t disappoint. Selasi introduces readers to a little-known world — that of elite African migrants who move seamlessly between Lagos and London, Boston and Delhi, and so forge identities that transcend easy categorization — but the inner lives of its inhabitants are instantly recognizable. The novel has the emotional force of a freight train, and is liable to have readers teary eyed before reaching the final page, even those not of rheumy stock. And not only is it highly readable — turning the page is never an effort — it’s also penned in edgy, breathtaking prose that will have even seasoned novelists green with envy.
While readers may stumble on the rare opaque sentence, this doesn’t detracts from a voice that will put Selasi on the map as a dazzling stylist. Indeed, lover of fragments and parentheses, Selasi uses these devices to great effect. In a book that is a portrait of a fragmented family and the tempestuous inner world of its members, these forms resonate so well with the subject matter that the pages vibrate in your hand. One can’t help feelings as though involved in a brilliant and merciful experiment, as if Don DeLillo were a highly sensitive Afropolitan woman (her term). The result is a novel that will gratify lovers of literary fiction’s leading edge to seekers of emotional insight — Ghana Must Go has wide appeal.
The action in this story of betrayal and forgiveness — father abandons family, family scatters and struggles, father dies, family is reunited — is compelling in its own right. But where Ghana Must Go really shines is in its treatment of perception and feeling. This is first and foremost a psychological novel, and one that provides an extraordinary window on the human heart. And so, while it will be of particular interest to those interested in Africa, the narrative is universal. It’s about the complex web of relationships between family members — siblings with siblings, children with parents, and vice versa. And even though the Sais lead unusual lives in foreign cities like Accra and Lagos, one can’t help feeling their predicament is the same faced by all. Immigrant or not, every reader will find something to identify with in this deft exploration of all the thing left unsaid between brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
Indeed, Things Left Unsaid would be an equally suitable title for this book, as page after page it hones in on the difficult silences that haunt us through the years and complicate our relationships with loved ones. This is where Selasi shines. She has a knack for not saying things, for avoiding the obvious path and so demonstrating precisely how people are — often afraid to say what matters, to risk vulnerability. Here she walks the fine line between analytical observance and emotional indulgence, managing revelation without schmaltz, and dissection without detachment. It’s a fine balance, and she strikes it well. And in the end, when the tension is just right, her characters step up to the plate and put their hearts on the line in ways that will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page.
Ghana Must Go is one of the rare debuts that has it all — edge, heart, pace, and style. Whether you’re interested in gorgeous writing, impassioned storytelling, or Africa and the diaspora, Selasi is a revelation on all counts. Certain to be one of 2013’s stand-out titles, Ghana Must Go is a must read.
Thank to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this title.