Book review: Hold, by Michael Donkor

Michael Donkor
Michael Donkor
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‘Post-colonial” always strikes me as a problematic term. It tethers things back rather than liberates. Musing on this novel having finished reading it, I found it strange that so many works by BAME writers – many of whom, like NoViolet Bulawayo and Taiye Selasi, I have lauded – involve an encounter with an estranging Occident. There are, of course, honourable exceptions; notably Chinua Achebe (referenced in this novel) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Michael Donkor’s debut is a bit of a riddle. Parts of it are excellent; parts seem to me like an impersonation of “fine writing”. It conforms to the stereotype of this kind of literature, in that Africa and Europe bruisingly grate against each other. Yet the best parts of it seem to derive from a wholly different kind of novel.

The central character is the teenager Belinda, whom we first meet in Ghana working as a housegirl. She is both stern and kind to Mary, her apprentice, and someone with, shall we say, a bit of a mouth on her. Not as much as Amma, a high-achieving schoolgirl whom Belinda will meet when she moves or is moved to London, to take courses at the Abacus Educational Centre while also being a maid and almost a chaperone to Amma. There is a kind of tick-box, formulaic nature to how the plot evolves. Gender questions? Check. The unthinking nature of racism? Anxieties about cultural identity? Unexpected tragedy? Moment of epiphanic happiness? All check. It is a book where all too often one can see the template over and above the text. The book is structured around the seasons, but again, it feels like the scaffolding has not been taking down though the building has been built.

Its great virtue is in the characterisation of Belinda. She is almost a Ghanaian-South-London second cousin to the Reverend Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She is profoundly dutiful and diligent, and finds a kind of moral comfort in wiping table-tops and ironing handkerchiefs. Her ethics can be problematic, in that she is not shy of being judgmental; but she judges herself more rigorously than anyone else. Mary and Amma serve as rebellious counterparts to Belinda’s patience and quiet. Novels which try to depict goodness are very difficult to do, and even more difficult to do well. This succeeds in that respect. It is also ingenious in giving the stranger’s eye to London at the turn of the millennium, though some of the references – such as the fact that Woolworth’s still exists – seem a tad shoe-horned.

There is an admirable attempt to capture the syntax, vocabulary and rhythm of Ghanaian English, although at times it can become slightly tic-ish. Repetition is the key feature; with characters often reiterating the same phrase. “I” is often doubled, and left standing on its own. Sentences end with “but” or “or”. Abstract nouns are given indefinite articles: “a hope”, “a sickness”. It is also peppered with words in Kwi (there is a glossary at the beginning of the book, but no indication about how certain non-Roman characters ought to be pronounced). This lends the novel a certain kind of “truthiness”.

But it is undermined by the “creative writing” writing. On one page I noticed “savaged mirror”, “lampposts festooned with dormant Christmas lights”, “wily pigeons”, “bloated graffiti”, “watermelon brightness”, “tart sweat”; the previous page had such clichés as “icy blast”, “lingering shame” and “picked up her pace”. The registers are clashing. I have no problem with either the pared prose of Hemingway or the baroque tangles of Pynchon or the idiomatic artifice of how people speak in any number of novels, but these different forms need to be carefully choreographed.

The novel also name-drops rather gauchely. There is a nod at Sebastian Faulks and a wink to Lord Of The Flies (children, damaged, alone: geddit?). In a very odd reference, Belinda is reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart “for fun”. What could this mean? I don’t think anyone reads Achebe “for fun”, and the nod at Smith seems either snide or needy.

Hold is a novel that seems to be trying to do too much at the same time. Any separate part of it might be a good short story, an insightful essay or a glimpse of memoir. Together, the gears seem not to mesh, and the lack of closure in some of the plotlines seems either downright wilful or unintentional. But it does have its moments of glory – despite some sex scenes that made me cringe. There is a sensitivity which I hope becomes more evident in future work. There is an acute sense that the “immigrant experience” is not one experience but a panoply of difference; and that economic factors as much as origin determine who one is. One excellent scene involves antagonism between different sections of this society, a topic which is, to an extent, taboo to discuss. That in itself is brave and necessary.

Belinda is a character who will stay with the reader, even if some of the supporting cast are less well rounded. I would, genuinely, like to hear more of her story.

Michael Donkor is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 11 August