Review: A dictator’s daughter comes home in Chibundu Onuzo’s ‘Sankofa’

On the Shelf


By Chibundu Onuzo
Catapult: 304 pages, $26

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Chibundu Onuzo’s 2018 debut novel, “Welcome to Lagos,” revealed a metropolis beneath siege from inside and with out. On the similar time, it was illuminated by her energetic and compassionate writing — an advanced and chaotic place rendered understandable, at occasions even humorous and candy, by the people making their lives in it.

The Nigerian-born Londoner’s follow-up, “Sankofa,” employs a completely completely different tone and perspective. (It’s additionally the brand new Reese’s E-book Membership decide.) Anna Bain Graham lives in present-day London, the place her multiracial look as soon as attracted catcalls however now appear mundane. However, nearing 50, Anna remembers these hurtful jibes. And he or she stays desperately interested in her Black father, Francis Aggrey, whom she by no means knew. After her mom dies, Anna’s aunt sends alongside a trunk; beneath a false backside are diaries written by Francis throughout his brief keep in England and after his return to Bamana, his fictional residence nation on the “Diamond Coast.”

His phrases hint a path of elevated radicalization, piquing Anna’s curiosity. She continues her analysis within the British Library, the place she finds that, beneath his center names “Kofi Adjei,” her father dominated Bamana from 1978 to 2008. “I didn’t know a lot about African politics,” Anna muses, “however to stay for 3 many years in energy would certainly make him some form of dictator.”

Most daughters, on studying their father had grow to be often known as “The Crocodile,” a corrupt head of state seemingly accountable for the deaths of 5 college college students, would run again to the protection of their bourgeois tea tables. Not Anna Graham. First she travels to Scotland, paying a go to to Adrian Bennett, creator of the one full-length ebook about Bamana. Adrian rightly holds her in suspicion, however the two make an uneasy truce, which helps Anna resolve to make the journey to Bamana herself.

Anna embarks on her quest amid her personal life’s turmoil. She and her husband of a few years are divorcing, and whereas their daughter, Rose, appears secure, neither mother or father can cease questioning if her longtime consuming dysfunction has returned. Onuzo, nonetheless simply 30, ably captures the frustrations of midlife: “I used to be a raveled, middle-aged girl, too outdated to be Kofi’s little one.” That’s necessary, as a result of the book’s title refers to a chicken that, in accordance with myths of the Ghanaian Akan tribe, walks ahead with its head turned backward, towards its origins. Like many ladies of her era, Anna hopes that studying about her previous will assist her transfer into her future.

The second half of “Sankofa” takes place completely in Bamana, the place Kofi, not president however nonetheless supremely highly effective, combines traits of each notable or infamous African ruler identified within the West, from the terrifying Idi Amin Dada to the inspiring Nelson Mandela. Watching Anna slowly circle her father’s protectors, lastly convincing him to fulfill her, is like witnessing two massive cats stalking one another. Kofi has his causes for lastly accepting her. Hers come later, and at a worth.

Kofi places his oldest daughter by way of many paces, taking her to his private Disneyland, Gbadolite, the place all of the villagers put on brightly coloured homespun garments and the zoo accommodates a feminine tiger, listless with out firm. “We’re making an attempt to get her a mate from a zoo in Beijing,” he says. “In fact, we might simply mate her with one of many lions and create one thing referred to as a liger.” The necessary factor, he appears to say, is just not the supply of the offspring however the perpetuation of the road. He introduces Anna to her sister Afua and brother Kweku — “There aren’t any half siblings in Africa” — permitting them to conduct their very own interrogations.

Kofi’s intention is evident; he desires to haze her for membership in his tribe. Whereas in Gbadolite, Anna additionally has an encounter with a youthful girl named Marcelline, who errors Anna for a journalist and takes her to a hut the place a really younger woman is chained to a stake. The woman tells Anna her uncle did this: “He stated I’m the rationale why his enterprise is failing.” In fact Anna desires to assist her. In fact Marcelline says she will’t. In fact Kofi will reference the incident to Anna, making her marvel if he precipitated the cruelty or invented it as a check for her.

In Bamana, and within the thoughts of Kofi Adjei, nothing is so simple as it seems to be from the comfy distance of the West. A ruler who cracks down violently on scholar opposition will also be worthy of worship all through the land — could be feared and cherished. A tradition that pushes its genuine handblocked materials in markets will also be one whose prosperous girls favor sequins and gold beads. A chicken, or a lady, can fly ahead however look again to her origins all through the journey.

However Onuzo is aware of higher. A lady’s previous can not resolve her issues. What Anna must recuperate is herself. The scene through which that occurs appears overheated and overdetermined, with too many indicators and symbols. However the one which issues most hits residence for each Anna and the reader — the not-so-hidden homonym of her identify, “anagram.” If Africa accommodates multitudes, so will we all — and, in “Sankofa,” Onuzo hints that the solutions to our issues lie neither behind nor forward of us, however inside.

Patrick is a contract critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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