Ghana Must Go: A Novel by Taiye Selasi (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013. 336 pp)

Taiye Selasi was born in London and raised in Massachusetts. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale and an M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford. Ghana Must Go is her debut novel. She lives in Rome.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the Penguin Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”.

On Death

The funeral, a tried-and-true literary device. Whether the desired result is drama or comedy, a death in the family brings characters together and forces them to cope with the absence of a central point in a family’s existence.

When someone dies, secrets are revealed, grievances are aired, estrangements cease. Death brings sorrow; death reveals pain; death reunites.

In her debut novel, Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi uses the death of a family member to speak to the meaning of family, in all its joy and sorrow.

The Man

The novel commences robustly with a central plot point. I’d be worried about spoilers but it’s the first sentence, the pinnacle of the narrative, and the reason for the rest of the book:

“Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between sunroom and garden considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t” (3).

What follows in the first half of the book is an exploration of this central character. Kweku died. But who was Kweku?

The answer?

A brilliant student. A professional doctor. A loving father.

Yet also, a broken man. Divorced. Scared of the future. Fleeing the comforts of post-graduate work in America for the friendly confines of Ghana, his homeland.

The Family

Left in Kweku’s wake: 4 children and a single mother. With financial stability removed, the family begins years of turmoil hanging to propinquity when nothing else feels secure.

In the second phase of Ghana Must Go, Selasi moves from the patriarch to the children. The reader gains updates on these children as they have grown up, have earned degrees, and have begun to develop a life.

The four children are:

“Olu—all quiet. The sadness as usual, as soft and persistent as the sound of a fan. Taiwo—the tension. Light tugging sensation. But no sense of danger, no cause for alarm. Kehinde—the absence, the echoing absence made bearable by the certainty that if, she would know (as she knew when it happened, as she knew the very instant, cutting pastel-blue hydrangea at the counter in the shop, suddenly feeling a sortof seizure, lower left, crying ‘Kehinde!’ with the knife slipping sideways and slicing her hands. Dripping blood on the counter, on the stems and the blossoms, on the phone as she dialed, already knowing which it was; getting voicemail, ‘This is Keh—‘ call waiting, clicking over, frantic sobbing, ‘Mom, it’s Taiwo. Something happened, as the blade made its way through the skin, the first wrist. So that now, a year later—more, nearly two years later—having neither seen nor heard from him, she knows. That she’d know). Last, Sadie—fluttering, butterflies, a new thing this restlessness, this looking for something, not finding it” (99).

The Funeral

Finally, the third phase of the narrative emerges when the family discovers the loss of their father and, then, congregates together, the space of years left at the doorstep and familiar family functions put forward.

In this reunion, we learn more about the brokenness of a family left to fend for themselves after the flight of a selfish father. We discover the many ways in which they have hurt each other, and yet we also discover the value of love and the way it breaks through such pain.

Love, we discover, is a powerful and powerful event:

“[T]he only point of a relationship is to play out, in miniature, the whole blasted drama of life and of death. Love is born as a child is born. Love grows up as a child grows up. A man knows well that he must die, but having only known life does not believe in his death. Then, one day, his love goes cold. Its heart stops beating. The love drops dead. In this way, the man learns that death is reality: that death can exist in his being, his own. The loss of a pet or a rose or a parent may cause the man pain but will not make the point. Death must take place in the heart to be believed in. After love dies man believes in his death” (304).

Ghana Must Go, therefore, explores the meaning of family, the importance of love, and the way a death in the family brings clarity to these themes. When love dies, finitude is palatable.

A Promising Writer. An Average Book.

Sadly, the strongest portion of Selasi’s narrative resides in the first phase, when we discover the driving forces behind Kweku. When the narrative expands to include Kweku’s ex-wife and kids, the character development becomes crowded and the narrative begins to plod. In the end, the funeral, as a literary device, offered expected results.

Taiye Selasi is a talented writer and I look forward to more of her work. Yet, I never felt as strongly about the narrative as I did in the early stages of reading, a result that makes giving this book a high grade more difficult.

I am glad to have read Ghana Must Go but it has not been a highlight of my year. I look forward to seeing what Selasi does next.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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