THE PLOT: Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo is about a lonely, middle-aged mixed-race woman. Raised by her white mother in England, Anna Bain has never known her black father. When her mother dies, Anna discovers her father’s old diaries and learns that he is the former president of (the fictional African country) Banama. Anna decides to travel to Banama to meet him, but she quickly realises her father is not the same young man who wrote those diaries. And, for someone who has always identified with her white upbringing, being mixed race in Africa is not what she anticipated…
RATING: The concept of “Sankofa” is linked with homecoming across West Africa. Indeed, the symbolism of the Sankofa bird and the idea of “looking backwards to discover what you have lost” is something I’ve been interested in for many years. It’s a long story, but my upbringing was similar to the main character in this novel. I personally connected with my father (who was a Government Minister in Nigeria and died when I was young) through his letters. Therefore, I knew this would be an emotional book for me to read and I would resonate deeply with it. I’m overjoyed that Onuzo explores the concept well and does this story, and the mixed-race experience, justice. For me, this is a four-star novel and I’d encourage others to read it.
GOOD BITS: Let’s step away from how close-to-home this novel is for me. Firstly, I loved the nods to ‘Segu’ by Maryse Conde and ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon. This is an intertextual novel that speaks to its literary foremothers, which is something I admire in modern literature. Secondly, I enjoyed the simple and sparse use of language. There’s something deep at play in this book about storytelling; how we tell our own stories and the narratives we construct to understand who we are. This extra layer in the book makes it richer than a simple ‘quest’ storyline.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: At first, I didn’t like Anna. I wanted to know more about her father’s story and wished he was the main character / the novel was told from his perspective. However, once I got through the first few chapters I thought it made sense that she’s deliberately unlikeable. In some ways, she has a “Karen” energy that emanates from her light-skinned privilege. It’s important for her character arc that she acknowledges and moves past this. Another criticism is how quickly some events happened. At some points I felt like I was reading a succession of incidents, rather than being truly immersed in the book, and some of these incidents became far-fetched and farcical. Despite this, I understand that they made a point and I loved what the novel represented even when it wasn’t wholly believable.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the mixed-race experience. It’d be good for lovers of ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and ‘The Vanishing Half’, and is mandatory reading if you’re a fan of ‘Segu’ by Maryse Conde or ‘The Lonely Londoners’ by Sam Selvon. Due to the simple language and exaggerated plot, it’s a quick and dirty read. However, there’s a lot going on under the surface. If you like contemporary novels with clear character arcs and epistolary elements, this should be your next read.
Thank you to Virago Press (part of Little Brown) for sending me a #gifted copy in exchange for an honest review. Sankofa is released in the UK on 3rd June 2021 and is available to order online.