It feels inherently wrong of me to want to compare Ghana Must Go with Americanah, for a whole variety of reasons. Partly because it feels as though I am making a rather politically incorrect generalisation, but also because it’s doing Taiye Selasi (who is by all accounts one of the most promising debut novelists of recent years) a major disservice. In spite of this, I couldn’t help but do both while reading and writing about it. For one thing, one of the main characters, having left Nigeria as a young adult for a new life in the USA has returned to Africa many years later; it deals with the problems of racism in America; and a lot of the story is told through a non linear narrative (All of this meaning that my single story of West African fiction has yet to be challenged). That’s pretty much all that the two books share though, and Ghana Must Go is very much its own story.
At its heart, Ghana Must Go is a tragic family saga. The first section of the book is devoted to the dying thoughts of Kweku, the former patriarch of the Sai family, who abandoned his family and fled to Ghana years previously after being framed for medical malpractice. This sections gets a little confusing because the narrative jumps around quite a bit, and despite the family tree at the start of the book, it’s difficult to keep track of some of the characters before you meet them. This makes it quite a challenging book to get into, but it is worth sticking with. The remainder of the book depicts the fallout of his death on his children and ex-wife, who also take this opportunity to try and reconnect with each other. This is really the point of the novel, demonstrating how Kweku’s actions affected those around him, and how it continues to do so.
The most interesting aspects of the book are the parts dedicated to exploring the lives of the four Sai children, all of whom have taken very different paths in life. While the eldest Olu, a master surgeon in a long term quasi-serious relationship, and Sadie, who is trying to come to terms with both her own independence and sexuality, are both compelling and important to the story, they are almost minor characters in the family tragedy. Their experiences are personal (though it is Sadie who prompted Fola, her mother to leave America, thus providing an extra layer to Fola’s own character) but it is the middle twins Taiwo and Kehinde, around whom the Sais’ real tragedy revolved. Taiwo, having dropped out of Law School after a sex-scandal, and with Kehinde gone off the grid to paint, the twins’s relationship was fractured about a year prior to the start of the novel, and I felt that their interactions with each other is very much a microcosm for the family as a whole.
In contrast to Americanah (I swear this is a legitimate comparison), which skirts around the less salubrious parts of Nigerian society, Ghana Must Go makes no such concessions, as immediately after their father’s absence, the twins are sent to live with their maternal half-uncle in Nigeria. We get hints throughout the book that something horrifying that happened to them while they were there, but it’s only at the end that we this is revealed in it’s awful detail. The revelation is very much the climax of the novel, and in a way the final 28 pages that come after it is a testament to Selasi’s talent as an author. I tend to feel that most contemporary novels seem to lack clear denouements, which often leave readers a little dissatisfied with the ending. This is absolutely not the case with Ghana Must Go. After the catharsis of the reveal, the Sais are finally able to come to terms with their experience and much of the emotional tension is released. This is as true for the reader as it is for the characters. The contrast in mood between the entire book before the reveal and the last few pages is incredibly stark, as despite the fact that they are finally attending Kewku’s funeral, the general mood has become one of optimism, rather than despair, which makes it particularly powerful reading.
As I said, Ghana Must Go is difficult to get into, and there are some parts that are almost too vividly awful to actually read, but I felt that it’s very much the sort of book that you have to look back on from a distance of a week or so to realise how good it was (the benefits of having a back-log of reviews to write!) . I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on Taiye Selasi’s future works (An not really important, but interesting discovery was that her writing career was kicked off by another author I’ve read this year, Tony Morrison!).
As a final note, The Scottish Book Trust have chosen it for their Book Talk podcast for July, and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it, especially after there was such a variety of opinions about The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared back in May.