Most debut novels excel when their writers find a distinctive voice and stay with it for the duration. Such is the case with Michael Donkor‘s Housegirl, (originally in Great Britain, the title is Hold.) Donkor, named by the Observer as one of the best debut novelists of 2018, found the distinctive voice for his 17-year-old Belinda from an amalgam of housemaids who cooked, cleaned, and waited on him during childhood trips to his extended family in Ghana. The idea of “labor”, of course, takes on many forms for young Belinda. Labor is physical domestic service, moral obligations of propriety, and understandings of domestic placement. There’s the need to be traditional and the impulse to strike out alone for any teenager, even more dramatically rendered for this Ghanaian girl. Belinda follows the rules, but there’s more to a complete life than understanding and executing proper conventions.
Housegirl starts with a two page glossary of Twi terms (a Ghanaian language), phrases and expressions. It’s necessary to understand as we are about to plunge head-first into the story of this domestic servant whose life is uprooted from her Ghanaian household in upper class Kumasi to live with (and mentor) a troubled young girl (Amma) in London. Belinda leaves behind her friend Mary, a younger girl she saw as a sister, and starts this new life without question. There’s no direct commentary on the question of class struggle and the inevitability of servitude, but the reader senses the emotional displacement as Belinda has to make the best of her new life a continent away.
The question of whether or not she has a choice to stay in Ghana is answered clearly by the fact that Belinda’s father has refused to continue paying her school fees. Belinda has excelled in her own work and managed to turn the feisty 11-year-old Mary into a compliant co-worker. The goal of having Belinda move to London is addressed quite clearly:
“Nana listed the opportunities Belinda would enjoy… improve her education in a wonderful London school and get a future… all of it made Belinda feel weightless and sick; like her chest was full of strange, drifting bubbles.”
By the time Belinda has relocated, in the next section (called “Summer”) the tone is different. There/s a gentle voice speaking in a different language, a loud child “silenced with a sweet”, a scared man and a demanding woman. Belinda has been given the job of becoming a role model for Nana’s girl, Amma. “Show her your goodness,” she is told. “Tear her out from whatever is making her behaving in those ways.” Belinda doesn’t see the source of this goodness. After all, why was she sent to this strange place? Donkor makes it clear early on that Belinda feels displaced with a fear that:
“…her dirty, village hands might leave a grimy trace or mark on the fine fabrics she was being asked to handle.”
What clearly separates this novel from many others portraying the lives and struggles of young African women is the placement of female sexuality at the forefront. Donkor, who himself came out to his parents in his early 20s, has noted that homosexuality is “kind of un-Ghanaian”. The awakening of young Amma to her own sexuality illustrates the cultural taboos of same-sex love. That Belinda finds herself judging Amma in a hostile way and feeling secretly ashamed towards her young friend is both shocking and honest. Housegirl, set in the early years of the 21st century, allows Amma to imagine her high school surroundings as those in Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” video. The collision of Western culture “decadence” and African traditionalism is clearly felt.
By the time Autumn comes, Amma is reading Orlando and Langston Hughes, fully entrenched in understanding her life as a lesbian. She cannot, however, understand the college application process and the personal statement. Being asked to write about herself seems tantamount to committing that the “she” college admissions officers want to meet at that moment is the “she” they will have to know forever:
“For Amma, being interesting was the ability to recite all of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, speaking Yoruba and Finnish and Cantonese-singular and cool and stuff like that.”
Belinda’s response to Amma’s love life is clearly felt and effectively illustrates the mixed feelings the reader might have towards our heroine. “Their sex acts would be done more dramatically and more horribly than normal people,” we read, “because the girls wanted to show off as much as they could, to shout that they were different.” Understanding will never be an easy process. The reader unable or unwilling to eliminate their own prejudices might feel the conclusion of Belinda’s understanding of and coming to terms with Amma’s sexuality is too little too late, but Donkor writes with an honest undercurrent that asks for no excuses and offers no easy answers.
The reader might see elements of Jane Eyre in Belinda’s life as a sort of governess in the house with Amma, but Housegirl has no need to concern itself with a Mr. Rochester to save our heroine from her situation. The novel is about the power of women and the love that surrounds them, however it’s perceived. The book begins and ends with funerals, and betraying specifics would rob the reader of a truly satisfying, albeit sad conclusion. Consider these lines, as Belinda is back home in Ghana, attending the funeral of a young one she would never have figured would be gone so soon:
“The coffin was like a neat slice of wedding cake. Looping curls of silver and pink, fussy like best handwriting, wound around the box. It waited by the gashed earth that the men would rest it in.”
Donkor has noted that this looping technique (opening and closing with funerals) was a way to demonstrate the full cycle of life. It’s an effective storytelling method that would be trite in less assured hands. The distinctive voice we meet in the beginning of Housegirl isn’t that of an independent and judgmental Belinda, and it’s not the voice of Amma, whom the reader hopes will understand that finding love with another young woman will not shatter her life. The tragedy of the voice we meet at the beginning that’s taken away from us at the end is also not the tone we should take away from this reading experience. The voice we meet from the beginning through to the end is Donkor’s, assured and confident and with a steely resolve. Housegirl deals with some difficult themes and has challenging lead characters, but if it’s a clear indication of what Donkor has to tell us, future stories from this writer just might be the challenging texts we need.