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Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go

This novel received a lot of publicity when first published – the most feted debut novel of the year and an arresting first novel – and it certainly is a good novel though I am not sure if it is good as some critics have said. It is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of her family but, in particular, of her father, who left the family home when she was a child. In real life, her father already had two wives when he married Selasi’s mother and is still alive, living in Saudi Arabia. In the book, the mother is the first (but not the last) wife and the book starts with the father’s death from a heart attack, in Ghana.

The story revolves around the father – Kweku Sai – his life and death and his effect on his family – his wife, his son Olu, the two twins Taiwo and Kehinde and the youngest daughter, Folasadé (Sadie). (Selasi is herself a twin but she has a twin sister, not a twin brother, as in this book.) The story gradually unfolds, as we learn of the history of the family as well as what Kweku has been doing since he left his family. When he dies, he is living outside Accra, with his second wife, Ama. (There had been another live-in lover but they were never married.) People were surprised when he married Ama, as she cannot read but she is a devoted, loving wife. He had bought a plot of land (from a mafioso) to build his house on and then, when he could afford to do so, had tried to have an architect design the house to his specifications. In his view, Ghanaians will never do what they are asked to do but always what they think best. All the architects had their own ideas and wanted to build him a US style house, which he did not want. He wanted a Ghanaian-style house – a one-story compound, by no means novel, but functional, and elegantly planned: simple courtyard in the middle with a door at each corner to the Living, Dining, Master, and (Guest) Bedroom Wings. Having rejected eight architects, he finds Mr Lamptey, an old-fashioned (and old) carpenter, who builds the house to Kweku’s specifications, entirely on his own, rejecting all offers of help from Kweku, while Kweku lives in a tent on the property. Everything works well till the house is finished and Mr Lamptey has views on the garden, which are very different from Kweku’s.

Kweku has married Folasadé (the same name as their daughter) and they had had four children. They had moved to the United States (Brookline, Massachusetts, as did Selasi and her family), where Kweku had worked as a surgeon. He had worked his way up the ladder and become one of the top surgeons. One day, an elderly lady from a rich and influential family, that had donated a lot of money to the hospital, was brought to the hospital. She was in a bad way and, in the view of the doctors, there was nothing to be done for her. However, they phoned the president of the hospital and insisted that she be operated on by the best surgeon. Kweku was the best surgeon. He advised against the operation but was persuaded to do it. The operation went well but the woman died. The family wanted revenge.

It is only towards the second half of the book that the family (mother and four children) get together for the funeral and it is then that we realise that the family is pretty dysfunctional. At least in Taiwo’s opinion, they will have different views on his death. For many years after, when Taiwo thinks of her father, she’ll picture him here in the garden like this, with his feet in the grass and the dew on his feet, and she’ll ask herself: where were his slippers? It is the least of all questions unasked and unanswered, the least of what’s wrong with the picture – man down, perhaps poisoned by an illiterate (Olu’s secret belief) or just dead in the tradition of people who just die (Mom’s) or punished by God for his various sins (Sadie’s) or exhausted by them (Kehinde’s)-but Taiwo will ask. Where were his slippers? Each family member gets on with his or her own life, with little contact with the others. Indeed Taiwo, for example, does not even have the phone number of her twin, Kehinde. Olu, the eldest, is the only one in a steady relationship, with Ling, an Asian-American. He has become a doctor like his father (Ling is also a doctor) but he certainly has his problems. Taiwo has drifted before going to law school and has had an affair with the dean, which was discovered. Kehinde has become a successful artist but seems never to have had any sort of romantic relationship. Sadie is a twenty-year old bulimic student. In short, all have their problems, which may or may not have been caused or exacerbated by their father’s departure, though, of course, the real reasons do come out.

Selasi tells her story very well and it would be interesting to know how much is fiction and how much real. I wonder, for example, how her father must have felt reading this book to find that his daughter had killed him off in this book, well before his time. Clearly, her father’s departure had a huge impact on her and, presumably, her siblings. However, there is no doubt that she is a first-class writer and manages to cleverly blend her Ghanaian and Nigerian heritage with her US upbringing and give us a fascinating story about a somewhat dysfunctional family that has to try to come to terms with its demons.

Publishing history

First published by Viking in 2013