Ghana Must Go was the surprise book club choice for October. Written by Taiye Selasi, her debut novel met with universally positive reviews.
The title comes from a Nigerian phrase from the 1980s regarding incoming Ghanaian refugees, moving away from the political unrest that dogged the nation. In many ways this is an immigrant story. Of a Ghanaian man and a Nigerian woman trying to make sense of themselves in their adopted American homeland and in turn of the effect that this has on their children. Selasi does not repeat history with bullet point notes or detailed explanatory footnotes but instead captures the events through the experiences and feelings of those affected by it.
The novel opens with Kwaku Sai’s death. He steps out to look at his garden when his heart begins to fail. His death is intercut with scenes from his life. This is how we are introduced to his former wife Folasadé Savage, to his children and his current wife, sleeping unawares upstairs. Kwaku is a Ghanian surgeon who immigrated to America with his Nigerian wife. Leaving behind all that they had known they push aside their pasts and set about creating a new life and their own family in America. They both have been hurt by their countries, and make a point of never talking about their birth homes, these hurts are passed on in different forms to their children, (““They were hurt…. Their countries hurt them””).
Many have made the same journey as our protagonists which is something that Kweku is fully aware of. As he lay dying he is aware of the feeling of not being unique, special, but instead one of the many that lived the same life and made the same journey. “He had no need for remembering, as if the details were remarkable, as if anyone would forget it all happened if he did. It would happen to someone else, a million and one someone elses: the same senseless losses, the same tearless hurts”. Selasi observes and captures each moment while displaying a wonderful and unusual use of description. At first it can seem a little excessive, almost overwritten, however after the first few chapters it draws you in. The language used is often lyrical and poetic, one favourite short example: “had absconded with the tide in the moonlight” The constant focus on the emotional and internal can at times come at the expense of plot development, there being a few key plot turns and character actions that seem a little unlikely .
Kweku greatest difficulty in life is that he cannot bear to fail at anything. To fail would be to let his family down after all they have given him. He is bewildered by his son who at times puts seeing his family before celebrating his academic success. His talented and promising wife turned down her place at law school in order to raise their four children: Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo and the youngest Sadie and support him, saying that “one dream’s enough for the both of us”. This lives on with Kweku who feels “that her sacrifice was endless. And as the Sacrifice was endless, so must the Success … to be worthy of Fola, to make it worth it for Fola, he had to keep being Successful”. This turns out to be one of the key driving points of Ghana Must Go.
You care strongly about the characters, are disappointed in them and feel joy and fear for them. Fola’s relentless hard work and energy holds everything together “there was the sense in her house of an ongoing effort, of an upswing midmotion, a thing being built: A Successful Family, with the six of them involved in the effort, all, striving for the common goal, as yet unreached”. They determine their own lives and only being to stumble when outside influences cause ruptures in the steady ‘upswing’. This momentum is broken when the family breaks down and ends up scattered across cities and continents. Kwaku’s sudden death throws the family back together again as they piece together what is left of their family. Their rootlessness is felt also by their children: “with no living grandparent no history, a horizontal – they’ve floated, have scattered, drifting outward, or inward, barely noticing when someone has slipped off the grid”. Throughout his slow death we met his children, see his rise and fall that has resulted in his return to Ghana and the breakup of his marriage, and also get to see into the hearts of those he left behind. Kwaku’s death scene is a little prolonged but this comes to make sense at the novels close. So as not to give away too much of the story line it is perhaps best to leave it there and allow each reader the chance, the joy, of meeting each character for the first time.
It is refreshing to see a novel about African migrants and first generation immigrants in America that find success and buck the trend for negative stereotyping. The big reveal in Ghana Must Go is not as surprising as Selasi probably intended and is a little disappointing in a novel that tries so hard to subvert negative ideas and preconceptions.
Ghana Must Go is a remarkable debut novel from a very talented and promising young writer.
Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go, (Viking, London, 2013). ISBN 9780670919864. 318., Hardback