Book review: Taiye Selasi's first novel lacks drama

Taiye Selasi's much-hyped debut novel about a dying Ghanaian doctor and his scattered relations is an ambitious effort, but her narrative doesn't contain enough drama to hold the reader's attention, writes Malcolm Forbes

Boys play on a beach in Accra, one of the settings in Taiye Selasi's novel, Ghana Must Go, about a family that moves to the US. Luc Gnago / Reuters
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Ghana Must Go
Taiye Selasi
Penguin Press

It's been a while since the announcement of the publication of a much-anticipated debut novel from what publicists insist on branding The Next Big Thing. But finally, amid a rallying fanfare and thick column inches of media hype, it has arrived. Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go was reportedly taken up by the literary agent supremo Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie and sold to Penguin on the strength of its first 100 or so pages, plus synopsis.

Wylie's clout would have been enough to broker the deal, but plaudits from his protégé Salman Rushdie, together with Toni Morrison's role as Selasi's mentor, may well have helped swing it.

In an age in which authors are as much a commodity as their books, it also can't hurt that Selasi has all the right credentials: young, smart, attractive, and with an acclaimed Granta short story, The Sex Lives of African Girls, already under her belt. Now all eyes are on her: can she deliver with her first full-length work of fiction?

In part one we are in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where Kweku Sai is dying of a heart attack in his own garden. Selasi unspools, taking Kweku back to recount the milestones of his life and introduce each member of his family. We flit from delivery rooms to deathbeds, from homes in Brookline and Boston to Kweku's simple one-storey compound in Ghana with his second wife, Ama. Comic interludes brush shoulders with tragic downturns. One moment - and in a witty scene that could have been skimmed from VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas - Kweku relives his frustration with the joint-smoking carpenter commissioned to build his house but who refuses to harm trees ("For chrissake, you're a carpenter. You work with harmed trees"); the next he recalls being fired in the US, no longer "an exceptional surgeon" but a disgraced one. His shame has consequences; the same day he walks out on his family and doesn't return.

It is a promising beginning and a neat trick: potted histories of the book's cast filtered to us through a character on the brink of death and so seeing his life flashing before him.

Part two opens with the news of Kweku's death and the ensuing fallout. We catch up with the rest of the family, picking up in places where Kweku's recollections left off. Ex-wife Fola has made a new start for herself in Ghana. In contrast, all the children have settled in America. Olu, the eldest, has followed in his father's footsteps and is now a surgeon and married to Ling - the pair of them "a study in contrasts, their photos like print ads for Benetton". Taiwo is lying low, still smarting from the public scandal of her affair with the dean of Columbia Law School, while her twin brother, Kehinde, also craving self-exile, is an art-world it-boy holed up in a Brooklyn warehouse. Student Sadie is less affected by the death of a father she barely knew and more concerned about being separated from her best friend Philae to decamp to Ghana with her siblings for the funeral. Unlike Philae's family, which is "a solid thing, weighted", Sadie's is "weightless, the Sais, scattered five-some, a family without gravity, completely unbound".

Part two sounds more linear in its narrative structure than the flashbacks on show in part one, but in fact it is just as jerky. Selasi tugs the reader this way and that, as keen to map her characters' pasts as chart their presents. There is no letting up with this approach in part three, and perhaps necessarily so, for although the family has reassembled in Ghana for the funeral, Selasi must reveal what caused them to disperse in the first place, and this can only be done by plundering the past and exhuming skeletons from closets.

The reader is occasionally disoriented, losing purchase on who is currently speaking to whom and when, but a more serious structural problem is Selasi's constant time-shifts, her faith in the belief that what happened then is of more import than what is at play now. Teleporting us to and fro with such frequent jump-cuts leads to unfortunate stalling in the narrative's drive. Granted, flashbacks flesh out characters and justify their present flaws but when overdone it can feel like one step forwards and two steps back.

Perhaps more debilitating is the novel's total lack of tension. Simply stated, Ghana Must Go is a family drama devoid of drama. It doesn't help that Selasi's characters are all beautiful, intelligent and successful - the children excelling at elite universities, taking after their father who was top of his class at Johns Hopkins; Kehinde not a struggling, impoverished artist, but a famous and wealthy one. (Poor one-dimensional Fola, on the other hand, has little to do except tip her head and sigh a lot while marvelling at her perfect offspring.) The family is disintegrating but sadly not dysfunctional. Selasi is too considerate, sorely lacking any mercenary streak; if she can't kill her darlings she should at least rough them up a little. There is one dark secret that is uncached towards the end, but if it is intended as the jolt in the denouement then it backfires, coming way too late and feeling chafingly inserted.

We would expect Selasi to be on surer ground in Africa. Fola's back story contains a sober account of how her father was killed in a pogrom during the Biafra War. In Ghana there are some nice dabs of local colour and an attempt to view it with an insider's eye. The country is a contradiction, possessing "the smell of dryness, wetness, both, the damp of earth and dry of dust". However, one key binary appears lopsided. Kweku says Accra is comprised of "wealth pressed against want" but Selasi prefers to focus on one stratum of society, the Sais, namely the comfortably off, their faceless house-staff being one of the few concessions to the existence of a lower class.

Some of Selasi's descriptions sparkle, such as Taiwo's opinion of Ling as "some erudite Tinker Bell with ADHD". In Ghana, Sadie notes that "a half-hearted wall made of mortar and concrete block starts and then stops like a six-year-old's smile". Short staccato sentences ("Under moon. Into black") run in stark counterpoint to longer, sputtering ones ("a way out of the hurting, for her, who is life-full, who lives and has always lived fully on earth, in the world, in and of itself, not grounded nor grounding but ground, in her person"). But some sentences are overwrought, overwritten, and don't work regardless of their length: "At least with a guest, there's a guise for the dolor that hovered above them in silence before, doubly massive for being unnamed, unacknowledged, the size of itself and its shadow, a blob." Worst of all is the tiresome repetition of capital letters for humorous effect. Sadie is "a Good Influence"; Taiwo wants to give the middle finger to Approval; Fola hopes they will all become "a Successful Family". Needless to say, this is a standard trope for writers heralded as The Next Big Thing.

Ghana Must Go has scope and ambition but for a novel that traverses two continents and sifts the mess made by families it isn't daring enough. Selasi seems afraid to wreak too much havoc, to abrade her characters' fine edges. On a certain level the book reads like a sanitised version of The Corrections, another novel in which a family reunites to make sense of itself, only Jonathan Franzen was less squeamish about opening old wounds and making fresh ones.

Selasi also clearly subscribes to the dictum "write what you know" (she is also a twin, her father a surgeon, she attended Yale, lived in Brookline) and while it is no crime for a writer to draw on personal experience, clinging too tightly to it can result in a reluctance, conscious or otherwise, to take risks. In the final analysis, Selasi's debut fails to live up to the hype but then what does? Still, beneath the marketing gloss and puff of publicity is a solid novel by a writer who displays, if not fully-fledged talent, then encouraging potential.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.