Belinda knows how to follow the rules. She has learnt the right way to polish water glasses, to wash and fold a hundred handkerchiefs, and to keep a tight lid on memories of the village she left behind when she came to Kumasi to be a house girl.
Mary is still learning the rules. Eleven years old and irrepressible, the young housegirl-in-training is the little sister Belinda never had.
Amma has had enough of the rules. A straight-A pupil at her exclusive London school, she has always been the pride of her Ghanaian parents. Until now. Watching their once-confident teenager grow sullen and wayward, they decide that sensible Belinda might be just the shining example Amma needs.
So Belinda is summoned from Ghana to London, to befriend a troubled girl who shows no desire for her friendship. She encounters a city as bewildering as it is exciting, and tries to impose order on her unsettling new world.As the Brixton summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover the beginnings of an unexpected kinship. But when the cracks in their defenses open up, the secrets they have both been holding tight to threaten to seep out.
Publisher: 4th Estate
Author Country: England/Ghana
I really, really tried to like this book, but just couldn’t. I get what it was trying to do, but the whole premise didn’t work for me. I mentioned it to my sister, and was three sentences into giving her the main thrust before she said,
“Nope. I don’t buy it”.
And that’s where my problem lies. From my experience of families and house girls/boys in Zambia, this doesn’t seem like a possible story line. Granted, I may be wrong and it happens every day in Ghana, but I just couldn’t see it happening. As a result, I couldn’t connect with the story, couldn’t really stay with the characters, nor immerse myself in their stories. I kept coming back to, “ummmm, this is just not possible. Lovely idea and all, but not possible”.
Belinda’s voice changes too much and too quickly for me to find it believable. Setting aside the unbelievable premise, she shows a dignity that is characteristic of people who have to be housemaids not by choice but by necessity. Her advice to Mary, who is struggling, that you have to imagine yourself as someone else who loves this work and inhabit that person daily at work, while slightly depressing, really captures the spirit of what it means to endure when you have no love for the work of person you have to be. I don’t know how long you can hold that position without being truly, and deeply unhappy, or how to be true to yourself, and I would have loved for him to explore more on that topic. To take us deeper into Belinda’s mind. The one scene I loved in the book, was the clash Belinda has with two Jamaican girls. It’s realistic, the conversation flows, the characters jump out from the page at you.
While Mary is a central character, I felt we didn’t see enough of her. Snatched conversations over the phone showed us a strong, independent and stubborn little girl, but only in those fleeting moments where the narrative was from Belinda’s viewpoint. We never really get to know Mary. I felt if we had, the climax built into the ending of the book may have felt less forced in some way? I would have liked to get to know her.
Amma…I really, really didn’t know what motivated her, why she behaved the way she did. We’re given glimpses and teased about who she and this didn’t endear her to me. I just wanted to give her a slap and tell her to cop on. Yes, she was struggling, yes she was justifiably scared and felt alone but fuck’s sake she was rich, in London and had parents (well…a mother at least) who adored her and wanted to move heaven and earth for her. Yes she was struggling with her sexuality (which was another bone I had to pick – in some parts beautifully written and others, wedged in an unsubtle bordering on crude and I cringed on Donkor’s behalf. Cringed!) but she didn’t have to be an absolute brat about it to EVERYONE. In the end, her story is so unresolved that I was left frustrated….kind of like her really. If that was what he was aiming for, he kind of hit it while missing the mark entirely.
While Donkor’s writing is efficient, I couldn’t quite catch the rhythm of it. It was as though I couldn’t understand what each character’s goal was, nor relate to the way they spoke. Belinda changes her speaking style too quickly and without any identifiable or realistic reason. Amma’s speaking annoyed me. I just didn’t get her at all. I found the scattering of Twi really interesting and the little dictionary at the front of the book, helpful in that regard.
Overall, it may have been written to be poetic, but I’m not a fan of poetry so missed the subtleness he may have been trying to infuse through the prose? I don’t know. Perhaps he may have hoped to instill the nature of teenagers, that confusion of being, the suspended state of being and not being a child, or being and not being and adult. If that was his aim, then it was adequately confusing. I just felt lost a number of times. Enough that I couldn’t understand the motivations nor sympathise, laugh, celebrate with the characters fully. Ultimately, it felt like two, maybe three books wrestling to take top place but not quite achieving being either their own stories, nor mesh well as a whole.
Only one part drew me in. I’m going to talk about it in a bit of detail, so avoid the next few paragraphs marked with spoiler tags if you haven’t read the book.
>> Spoiler alert!<<
One thing that’s never talked about much in life, is grieving the death of a friend. I felt that in the book, when Belinda is trying to make sense of the death of her friend, this was the only part of the book that felt real to me. If this was the writer’s goal, then it was excellently done, as the rest of the book seems dreamlike, surreal and illogical in places. But death, death stood out like the real event it is when it enters your life. How do you mourn a friend who was an everyday part of your life, in an environment that doesn’t simulate real life? Are her parents at the funeral? Does she have siblings? Why are they left out so utterly and completely from her death? This is very odd and unusual from a Zambian perspective so I found it odd to say the least. That Nana put Belinda up in a posh hotel on her return to Ghana – odd. That Belinda doesn’t look for Mary’s family or ask about them – odd. Why do the Utuos, after treating her like a maid the whole time she was a maid with them, suddenly treat her like a daughter when she comes back for the funeral? It makes NO sense at all.
If I haven’t put you entirely off the book, you can purchase it by following this affiliate link for bookdepository.com Should you follow the link and buy a book, I’ll get 5% off the price of my next purchase, so give me some love if you do buy a book from them. They provide free worldwide shipping so that’s an added bonus to their relatively low book prices.
Till next time,