Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
June 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Granta Best of Young British Novelists list was announced in April. There was a lot of hype around it, as well as some predictable ennui from certain quarters, with comments like “Their record of spotting good writers is poor. Why is everyone so excited about this?” I had to check after that. Of the three previous lists, 1983, 1993, 2003, I counted twelve (out of sixty) authors that I hadn’t heard of, with even some of those unknowns seeming vaguely familiar even if I couldn’t name a book by them. Is eighty per cent really a poor record?
Anyway, I’d previously read several of the authors on the Granta list, but not Taiye Selasi. Her novel, Ghana Must Go, has been quite heavily promoted, with “heavily” being a relative term that can stretch from Fifty Shades-esque marketing to simply not being ignored at the more literary end of things. Nonetheless, it was being mentioned in all the usual places, although despite this I could have told you nothing about the story. As it turns out, that’s because plot is not a key component of Ghana Must Go. The novel opens with the death of Kweku, absent husband, absent father, former surgeon, and ends right after his funeral (which we do not actually see take place, a subject I will come back to later).
Between these two bookends we see various the viewpoints of the four children, Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie, and from that of the ex-wife, Fola, in particular the different reaction when each family member learns of Kweku’s death and their journey to Ghana for the funeral. Along with this, we also get hefty chunks of backstory: Kweku’s own life, from poor village boy to respected US surgeon to disappointed Ghanaian man, Fola’s trajectory, and in particular her sacrifices to Kweku’s success (finding herself pregnant with Olu in her early twenties, she abandons her place at law school, deciding that one success—Kweku’s predicted one—is all one family can hope for). The children, too, have much to report. Locked in their own worlds, their roles dictated by their place in the family—a place that is perceived differently by each person, but nonetheless forces a certain artificial conformity to what is expected—each child has significant traumas to process. Some secrets that have been buried for years come out; others remain hidden.
The events themselves, along with the characters, are interesting and presented well, but there’s something lacking. Selasi is a gifted short story writer (and her contribution to the new Granta bears this out), but for much of the time Ghana Must Go feels disjointed. The sentences are great; the overall vision and construction less satisfying. Too much—and too much that is important—is alluded to obliquely or glancingly. Some people will call this intentional style, especially in conjunction with the poetic language; to me, in this book, it feels like skipping over the tricky parts. The absence of the funeral itself—we see Fola stop, unexpectedly, to invite Kweku’s second wife, Ama, to the ceremony, at which they already have an urn full of ashes—is symptomatic of the problem: that Selasi is, like many literary authors, great at the back story, at the “what makes this character who they are today” but less confident at pulling the strings and getting characters to act on the page. (This is not so in the Granta story, in which she balances the two perfectly.) Selasi handles characters beautifully when looking back at the past, spreading them open like fans and noticing not only the tiny differences on each elaborate panel, but also how different each panel appears with changes in the light, but all this stops at the present. What this means is that there are many wonderful scenes that examine all manner of difficult subjects, but they never quite add up to more than scenes. If the book was told from the point of view of just one character, this approach would probably have worked better, but the revelations we are waiting for are not essential enough to the story.
In the end this isn’t a huge problem in this novel because other aspects are strong enough to carry it. I enjoyed Ghana Must Go (the phrase refers both to the forced Ghanaian exodus from Nigeria in 1983 and to those enormous cuboid plasticky tartan bags you see in for sale in big cities, in those shops near markets and train stations that sell everything from phone cards to suitcases), and was content to pick it up each time I did so, but once I’d finished it didn’t stay with me for long.
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