Review: Ghana Must Go

05Mar14

Kweku Sai was a great surgeon, but not a terrific husband or father. When he dies suddenly one morning in Accra, his wife and children return to Ghana for the funeral, and to make their uneasy peace with each other. This premise barely does justice to the sweeping tale Taiye Selasi delivers in Ghana Must Go, but it is as good a place as any to begin.

Image taken from the Center for Fiction - click through to see video of a reading from this novel.

Image taken from the Center for Fiction – click through to see video of a reading from this novel.

After all, don’t so many things begin with family, and the ways in which family members fail and succeed with each other? It’s a fundamental social unit, and Selasi’s tale shows us the many ways in which that unit can be tested, stressed, frayed, and re-strengthened.

Each of the loved ones Kweku leaves behind has been marked by his actions. Folosade, Kweku’s long-suffering wife, never understood why he abandoned her and their children, and now that he’s dead, she can never ask. Olu, their oldest son, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor, but the emotional cost of living up to his father’s legacy is very high, and threatens to wreck his marriage. The twins, Kehinde and Taiwo, used to be very close, but haven’t seen each other for years, for reasons neither is willing to talk about. And Sadie, the youngest, struggles to find her own gifts and talents in a family brimming with them, burning up with both jealousy and an eating disorder. Can these wounded people lower their barriers long enough to let healing begin?

Selasi answers this question slowly and gradually, revealing her characters’ secrets little by little, relying heavily on flashback. Intercut with the Sai family drama is the story of the land they left behind, Ghana, and Selasi tells the reader just enough that s/he will be inspired to go learn more. The title is a phrase coined by Nigerians to protest the 1983 influx of refugees from war-torn Ghana, and also refers to a shopping bag used by African women (also originally a sign of protest against the aforementioned refugees). The title’s double meaning mirrors the contents in that the Sais words and actions frequently mean more than they do on the surface, and, much like a shopping bag, the most interesting things have sifted to the bottom, and must be gradually unearthed by patiently unpacking everything on top.

The Sais begin to heal when they start talking to each other, and it’s significant that they are gathered in Ghana, not America, for it is in Africa that the roots of their family’s various secrets are buried. The process is not an easy one, but the novel ends on a note of cautious hope and optimism. Readers who enjoy Alice Walker and Edwidge Danticat will find themselves in similar territory here, in terms of style and theme, but Selasi’s narrative voice is, at the same time, fresh and new. A good introduction to 20th-century African history, by way of a good story about family ties.

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2 Responses to “Review: Ghana Must Go”

  1. Your review captured the essence of this book very well. The Mt. Washington Book Group discussed this book in January with mixed feelings. Some of the members were not happy with the story that went from the present to the past and back to the present. Some also thought that that the narrative was choppy at times and needed to be edited. I REALLY liked this book. I thought that the story was compelling and that the author’s use of language was often poetic.

    • Thanks for commenting, Marian! Time jumps in narrative are a big book club deal-breaker, aren’t they? I, too, found the language very poetic, and didn’t notice an editing problem at all.


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