Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Debut novel strips away family secrets

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This debut novel is a story of love and betrayal when decades of a family's secrets and hidden shame are stripped away.

It focuses on a Ghanaian-Nigerian family driven apart by a father's desertion and brought together by his death.

London-based author Taiye Selasi is no stranger to the literary world. Her short story The Sex Lives of African Girls appeared in 2011 in the British journal Granta. In 2005 she wrote an essay about blacks in the West in which she coined the term "Afropolitan."

The term does not appear in Ghana Must Go, but the principal characters clearly fit the mould. The story chronicles the assorted problems of these descendants of emigrants from Africa in the '60s and '70s. They are young, well-educated, rich (or at least moderately well-off), obsessive over-achievers straddling two worlds.

Right from the opening sentence, "Kwaku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs," Selasi devotes painstaking attention to cadences and rhythms.

Her careful crafting makes for engaging reading, even though at times the storyline has to struggle to avoid being smothered by her style.

This story of the Sai family over several generations and three continents is warm and earthy in its settings, particularly in Ghana, somewhat thin on action, but rich in character development.

Kwaku, the father, is from Ghana. Fola, his wife, is from Nigeria. They produce a family in America as Kwaku becomes a successful surgeon in Boston. He is made the scapegoat in the death of a wealthy elderly patient and is fired to appease her family.

Kwaku's sense of self-worth is hopelessly enmeshed with what he does. In his mind, being fired is a betrayal of his wife, who put her career aside to support him. His final, humiliating eviction from the hospital, in the presence of his youngest son, triggers his decision to abandon the family, and sets in motion its disintegration.

Olu, oldest of the children, shoulders the mantle of responsible eldest son. Like his father, he is a talented surgeon but harbours an intense hatred of him, and an envy of Kehinde, his younger brother.

Fola, afraid she will be unable to raise the family alone, sends the 14-year-old twins, Kehinde and his sister Taiwo, to live with her brother in Nigeria. This quickly unravels into an act of betrayal when the uncle forces them into an incestuous relationship. Rescued after 40 weeks, they refuse to tell anyone what happened.

Critics are already describing Selasi as a "powerful and poetic" new voice in literature, yet Ghana Must Go leaves a nagging suspicion that portions of it were written to impress judge of literary awards.

Although annoying, the flaw isn't fatal, and there is still much pleasure to be taken from viewing a family saga through Selasi's prism.

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J8

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