Today is is my great pleasure to be sharing my thoughts on Hold, the debut novel from Michael Donkor. Hold has been long listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2019 and I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of the tour celebrating all of the books in the running. My thanks to publishers Fourth Estate who provided an advance copy for review, here is what the book is all about:
The Bookish Bits
Moving between Ghana and London, Hold is an intimate, powerful coming-of-age novel. It’s a story of friendship and family, shame and forgiveness; of learning what we should cling to, and when we need to let go.
‘You have to imagine. That’s how I told myself.’
‘Imagine that you are the kind of girl that can cope with it, even if you are not.’
Belinda knows how to follow the rules. She has learnt the right way to polish water glasses, to wash and fold a hundred handkerchiefs, and to keep a tight lid on memories of the village she left behind when she came to Kumasi to be a housegirl.
Mary is still learning the rules. Eleven years old and irrepressible, the young housegirl-in-training is the little sister Belinda never had.
Amma has had enough of the rules. A straight-A pupil at her exclusive South-London school, she has always been the pride of her Ghanaian parents. Until now. Watching their once-confident teenager grow sullen and wayward, they decide that sensible Belinda might be just the shining example Amma needs.
So Belinda is summoned from Ghana to London, to befriend a troubled girl who shows no desire for her friendship. She encounters a city as bewildering as it is exciting, and as she tries to impose order on her unsettling new world, Belinda’s phone calls back home to Mary become a lifeline.
As the Brixton summer turns to autumn, Belinda and Amma are surprised to discover the beginnings of an unexpected kinship. But when the cracks in their defences open up, the secrets they have both been holding tight to threaten to seep out…
Back in my university days I found myself reading quite a bit of African literature. South African, Kenyan, Nigerian – I loved how it was all rich in imagery and the stories steeped in history with a true sense of a culture I could only begin to imagine. Upon reading the blurb (something I seldom do) I was immediately drawn to the story, to the idea of the taking a young woman, well only a child really, who has only ever known the Ghanian way of life, and transplanting her into a new family, and a whole new culture which was miles away from her own. I wanted to see if the author could capture the wave of emotion that Belinda must feel in making the journey, both physically and mentally, so step up from servant to sister.
From the very start of the book I found myself intrigued, drawn into a story that I needed to know more about. Opening on a funeral, the author creates some rather stark images in the readers mind, creating an immediate sense of loss but also of the continuity of life. It left me with so many questions ones which I had to go on the journey with the characters to have answered.
This is essentially a coming of age story, but one with a significant twist. The main character, Belinda, not only has to come to terms with personal loss, already separated from her Mother when she went to work for “Aunt” and “Uncle”, but also immense change when her gift for helping others takes her all the way to London. Whilst much of her culture is still observed within her new home, there is a lot to adjust to, with her new family seeing her as a sister to their daughter, Amma, whilst Belinda sees herself as a servant still. This has been captured perfectly with Donkor expressing Belinda’s inability to settle and the reader seeing her still engage in daily cleaning, even though she is asked not to.
It is not only the familial situation Belinda has to adjust to. She is separated from one of her closest friends, Mary, and the back and forth exchanges between them add both colour and emotion to the story. Mary is young, too young to adequately cope with the change in a mature manner, and her spirited nature and childish behaviour ring true in every paragraph. I really liked Mary, her exuberance, her determination and her inquisitive nature really made her feel like an annoying younger sister.
And then there is Amma. She has not only to contend with exams, friendships and her mother’s incessant desire to pull her into the Ghanian way of life when all Amma wants to do is find her own path, but she is at a crossroads in her life. A point where she needs to work out who she is, even if by being herself she goes against everything she has ever learned about her culture.
This book not only gives readers a taste of Ghanian life, but also looks long and hard at what is is like to be a teenager. All that sense of finding yourself, experimenting with your sexuality and perhaps against what you know your family would want or expect, and also of searching for that one true friendship where you can be yourself and be completely and unashamedly honest. The relationship between Amma and Belinda is truly believable, as much because of the stark differences between them. One is a child raised in the UK, keen to speak out against what she perceives as flaws in her culture, and the other raised in Ghana, a girl who knows only how to live to a strong set of religious and moral ideals. The author has made their story quite compelling, made me invested in their futures and made me want the best for both of them.
If there is one thing that makes the book for me, it is the imagery that is conjured up on the page, particularly in the scenes set in Ghana and towards the end when the relevance of the funeral is revealed. I don’t mind admitting that by this stage I was fully engaged in the book, in the lives of the three young girls, and the emotion I felt at what happened did catch me out a little. Perhaps the journey back to Belinda’s former home could have been a little quicker, but the passages allowed both the characters and the reader time to reflect and prepare for what was to come. There is a lot of use of language, be it the injection of the Ghanian words, or the style of speech, which may put readers off but I found I fell into the rhythm of the narrative after a while and it only added to the reality for me.
All in all this is a beautifully written piece of work, which examines friendship, loss and how the very nature of love, be it familial or carnal, can change a person’s life completely.
About the Author
Michael Donkor was born in London, to Ghanaian parents. He studied English at Wadham College, Oxford, undertook a Master’s in creative Writing at Royal Holloway and now teaches English Literature to secondary school students. Many of the issues in this novel are close to his heart, and his writing won him a place on the Writers’ Centre Norwich Inspires Scheme in 2014, where he received a year’s mentoring from Daniel Hahn.
Author Links: Twitter