This is the pinpoint on which the story rests:
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.
It happens in a house in Ghana, to a gifted surgeon who is estranged from his ex-wife and his four grown-up children living far away in America. In three parts, the family’s past, present, and future are laid out.
Selasi tells one individual family’s story, but it nonetheless shows a microcosm of the much greater issues that affect many immigrant families. They are caught between cultures, faced with racism, prejudice, and high expectations, and are struggling with questions of identity. In the case of this particular family, there also emerge feelings of inadequacy, and that little seed of doubt deep inside, once it is there, is hard to ignore and can grow into an overshadowing tree. When Kweku leaves his wife Fola and his four children sixteen years before his death, he leaves them all of a sudden because of an event that is out of his control. At first, it’s easy to think that the motivation is wounded pride, but it is slowly revealed that instead it is a sense of inferiority, of undeservingness; he thinks of his beautiful wife and is convinced that he doesn’t deserve her and has never deserved her. No matter how many battles he has won against that gnawing feeling inside, the war is lost in an instant. In a later discussion with his eldest son he explains it like this:
“You can’t do that…” his father said, weakly now, faltering. “Give up when you’re hurt. Please. You get that from me. That’s what I do, what I’ve done. But you’re different. You’re different from me, son -”
“I’m just like -”
It is hard not to feel at least some sympathy for him, even though his actions have terrible consequences for the family. And no matter the reason behind it, he perpetuates the stereotype of the African father that walks out on his children, as his son notices later. In Fola’s opinion it is part of being an immigrant because leaving is what they do. But how to break free of this kind of cultural baggage? This feeling of being deficient or missing some important feature comes up in all of the characters who are in general drawn in a realistic and relatable way, with their own demons and peculiarities, and Selasi peels the layers back masterfully. They are different in many ways but the hurt reveals itself much the same. Some of their secrets are only uncovered at the very end, but make everything fall into place beautifully.
The story overall is woven together in a unique way, non-chronologically and with a constantly changing perspective as every chapter puts the spotlight on a different member of the family. The result is not only a deep insight into every single one of them, but that the same event is seen through different eyes which creates some unexpected shifts in the narrative. On top of that, Selasi’s prose is elegant and poetic, filled with metaphors and clever wordplay, and the atmosphere she creates is exceedingly intimate due to the close observation of the characters’ internal workings.
“One of six dead, five left all unwell,” is what Fola thinks to herself at one point during the funeral preparations, but the truth is that they have all been unwell for a long time, for 16 years to be exact, and that Kweku’s death is a tragedy and a loss of oppurtunity to mend what was broken on one hand, but on the other, it is the catalyst to finally let the old wounds heal that have been festering for so long. Scars remain, and one of six is dead; five however are able to move on, reunited.