A thoughtful exploration of the inner conflicts and secrets of an aspirational family in the U.S.
Taiye Selasi’s novel begins with a death; that of Kweku Sai who is found in the garden of his house without his slippers.
For Kweku Sai was known for his penchant to get things right, as in the house he built and his perfect immigrant’s life in the U.S., till an erroneous death on the operating table ended his career. Kweku’s missing slippers act as a motif for the dark secrets, the missing small bits, or even the regrets that his family, and perhaps all of us, carry around in our lives.
And this is what Taiye Selasie’s novel is largely about: how a man’s death brings his far-flung family together. In piecing together of his life, his family sees a return to the unity they once knew.
It is a big family, where even the absence of secrets causes resentment. Olu, his father’s favourite, lives a replica of the latter’s life, more perfect than Kweku’s could ever be. Then there are the beautiful twins, Kehinde and Taiwo and Sadie, the youngest, born prematurely and over-protected by her mother, who cannot possibly be as perfect as her siblings, and turns bulimic. It is a family ruptured by a desertion. All novels write stories; occasionally they also make statements, or are sometimes made to do so.
Selasie’s story released almost the same time as Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, a novel where hair and the unique ways of styling it works as a motif. But Selasie’s language, vivid and musical in places, is reminiscent of Ben Okri’s work.
But does the African story in this matter? So I tried this thought experiment: Even if Kweku’s career unravelled as he became a victim of a decision that had to be taken and he was picked because he was so much the ‘other’, the novel would have still worked, even more dramatically for the inner conflicts, the dilemmas are so well explored, in almost every instance. There’s Olu’s inner confusion, so much in contrast with the evenness in his relation with his partner Ling; Kehinde’s reclusiveness, Taiwo’s giving up law school in the wake of a scandal, and even Sadie’s big secret, as they all chase the American dream. This is a theme that has been explored in every American novel as well but what arguably held the novel up were the statements one felt Selasi was compelled to make, almost as if she had a checklist to consult as she wrote this novel.
So, does a novel have to define itself politically, in an age when readership in English —as in this instance — is a global one? Elsewhere Selasi has referred to the ‘Afro-politan’ novel. For all the complex questions the novel makes one ask, it is readable in a gripping way. Some of the main characters, though, never emerge fully. Fola’s story is never really told, and the terrible crime that haunts the twins, Kehinde and Taiwo, ‘who always had each other’ deserved more pages. The secondary characters — the eccentric house-builder, Mr/ Lamprey with his Gandhian asceticism, the sinister Femi, and even Kehinde’s assistant Sangna, who zealously guards his privacy and the myth of his death — are masterfully drawn. It is in this story hidden in the grand unfurling of the bigger narrative that Selasi appears to give an ironic twist to the African novel.