Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, begins with death, the door to retrievals, reckonings, and becomings. Anna Graham’s mother, Bronwen Elizabeth Bain, has just passed. Anna Graham is a 48-year-old mixed-race woman—Bamanaian father (Bamana is a fictional West African country) and white mother—with a grown daughter, Rose, and a white husband, Robert, who ticks all the boxes, but whom she does not know whether to divorce after she found out about his affair.
Back from her mother’s headstone, she opens the trunk under her mother’s bed, curious that it might contain information about her father, whom she knows very little about. She knows his name was Francis Aggrey, that he came to study in England in the ‘60s. Before Aggrey returned to Bamana, Bronwen Elizabeth Bain was already pregnant with Anna, but Aggrey did not know. He never saw Bronwen Elizabeth Bain again.
As Anna Graham learns about Francis Aggrey, she shares bits of herself with us, and the story becomes fast-paced, gently gripping. Being invisible because of the colour of your skin or gender, because you were born in a world with its eyes taped shut to glory, watching your life drift past you every day until you are overweight and your husband, handsome like he was when you met him 28 years ago, is having an affair—anger will brew inside you. This anger is set to use.
What does it mean for a woman to reclaim herself, to become herself? This is at the heart of Sankofa: “I am becoming someone apart from Robert, a process from which now I believe I will emerge mostly upright.”
“Sankofa” is a word from the Akan people of Ghana: it means “to go back and retrieve it.” The book cover captures this with a bird whose head is turned to yesterday, flying toward the light of tomorrow.
In Sankofa, you hear ancestors: Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Buchi Emecheta, and Bessie Head, whom Anna describes as “being like me. . . but in a worst place to be coloured.” (Anna knows privilege, its gradings.) The novel is also in conversation with the work of a contemporary like Sarah Ladipo Manyika, whose novel In Dependence is the story of a Nigerian man who has an affair with an “obroni” when he goes to study in England.
Onuzo tries to be meticulous, foreshadowing, fracturing, alluding. The image of a cage, for instance, a metaphor for humans as animals in a cage, recurs in the novel, Onuzo hammering a point.
After learning that her father is alive and well, Anna Graham Bain decides to travel to Bamana to meet him. In Bamana, the book loses its fast pace, becomes something “like travelling with the QI Facts book, novel at first but grating by lunchtime,” as Anna notes of her professor’s comments. The story is dredged by a flourish of embellishments, long literal notes on metaphors in culture, architecture, and politics that could be done without because they say nothing new, and the old thing is not said with novelty, either.
Sankofa is a book about relationships, but glosses over the subject. Anna’s relationship with her mother is vague, so is Anna’s with Rose. Anna claims that her mother did not understand her, this Black child, tried to shy away from the reality that is the colour of her skin; Anna’s Aunt Caryl, who was the first to have an affair with Francis Aggrey, “was the only one who understood that I was a black child living with a white family.” Even when Anna had grown up, there were conversations that she and her mother could still not have: “We couldn’t speak about my childhood without me getting angry. It puzzled her.”
Every now and then, Anna shares something about Rose’s eating disorder. Rose, now 25, stopped eating after someone, when she was 15, at the final round of a modelling casting, said of her calves, “Her legs are nigger big.” Every time we see Anna and Elizabeth Bronwen, it is almost always in the context of race, their relationship narrowed down to this one thing. Sometimes Onuzo’s characters look like mouths borrowed to make points, which are then discarded, to be picked up later.
Sankofa is predictable. The scene where a supposedly surprising thing occurs is one of the blandest in the book. It is only in the final pages that Onuzo attempts magic.
But what the prose lacks in depth it has in finesse. The sentences possess a measured kind of poetry: “Two Somali women walked past. Their feet were covered by their abayas. They glided, tall black swans that had learned to swim in concrete”; “There was a lone runner going uphill on the treadmill.”
What might be interesting about the parallels and contrasts, tools used throughout the novel, is how Onuzo’s Anna belongs to nowhere. In the UK, she is the Black kid, the Black woman; in Bamana, her father, now Kofi Adjei, tells her: “You are my daughter, but at the end of the day you are still an obroni.” Kofi Adjei is the most realized character and hero in the book, firm in character and able to slip.
At the end of Sankofa, nothing has changed for Anna. As curious as she is about men and how they look, noting that this is her taste and that isn’t, in an appetizer scene where she makes out with a man, the moment rushed, the hunger too burnished, we still don’t get a sex scene.
—Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo
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