Hold also known as Housegirl in the US is the debut novel by Black British author Michael Donkor. I was really excited to read this novel for three reasons. One, it was a novel by an author of Ghanaian heritage. Two it had Ghanaian characters and was set in Ghana and London – South London at that (N.B. that’s where I’m from. In fact the novel is set a stone throw from where I used to live but I digress). Three, it has a really beautiful cover – I mean it’s stunning.
So as I said, I was really excited about this novel. So much so I recommended it on Twitter for #ReadABookDay, before I’d even started reading it, as well as listing it as a book to look forward to this Autumn in my last post. My mistake because the adage ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ and ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ was never more true than now.
The story is about a teenage housegirl called Belinda, who with her eleven year old colleague, Mary, works for a family in Kumasi, Ghana. A visit from her employer’s friends, the Otuos results in her being sent to live in London to be a sort of companion to their troubled daughter Amma, who is of the same age, much to the chagrin of Mary.
In London, Belinda attempts to befriend Amma while also adjusting to her new life in London. Her frequent phone calls to Mary remain her only connection to home. Though Amma, is initially hostile to Belinda, the beginnings of a friendship forms between the two. And after a while, Amma is able to confide to a shocked and bemused Belinda about her love for another girl. But before, this revelation and it’s effect on their fledgling friendship can be explored further, a tragedy calls Belinda back to Ghana.
I thought I’d really enjoy this book and I really wanted to. But in all honesty I really struggled. The pace of the story was quite slow and there was no real plot, it felt like there was no real direction. The story just meanders on. Even when key moments in the girl’s lives occurred they didn’t have the quite impact that they should have done. Even worse was the dialogue. The depiction of Ghanaian English dialect was so bad and unrealistic. Several times I found myself exclaiming ‘But who speaks like this?!’. Also, there was little to no distinction between the various characters, as they all seemed to speak with the same voice, especially the Ghanaian ones. To add to my sense of discontent was the depiction of Ghanaians and Ghanaian culture which wasn’t particularly positive or balanced. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was reading the novel on my e-reader I would have lobbed it across the room more than once.
The saving grace of the novel was that the narrative was actually pretty good. Some of Donkor’s descriptive passages were so eloquently and beautifully written, that it was really jarring to the senses to be brought back into the dialogue. Donkor’s exploration of Amma’s sexuality was also well written but I could help but think that it could have been handled better and more could have been done with it especially after she comes out to Belinda. I also liked the cultural references specific that littered the book but at times they seemed anachronistic, after all it’s set in 2002, and who in the world under the age of 30 was rocking a jheri curl in 2002?
By the end of the novel I felt cheated, mostly because I didn’t care and I felt as though I should have cared. It was really disappointing to feel this way, especially about a novel that from the synopsis seemed really promising but at the end of the day just didn’t deliver.