Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

A poignant novel exploring a complicated father-daughter relationship is ultimately weighed down by unnecessary side-characters and by a superficial approach to serious issues. While I appreciate the themes the author touches upon in Sankofa, I found this novel to lack cohesiveness. The story begins with Anna, daughter of a white Welsh mother and a Black father from a fictional country in West Africa, who is in her late forties and in the process of separating from her husband. Not only Anna is grieving her marriage but her mother, who died months previously. Anna chances upon her estranged father’s old journals. Her mother revealed very little of his identity, giving Anna a name, Francis Aggrey, and not much else. Through her father’s entries, Anna glimpses for the first time in her life her father’s character. These journals relate his time in England, the racism he experienced, the friends he made, his politics, as well as his brief relationship with Anna’s mother.
Anna is amazed to discover the role her father played in his country’s liberation from colonial rule and shaken to learn that many went on to speak of his time as Bamana’s Prime Minister as resembling a dictatorship. In a rather conventional way, the novel sees Anna traveling to Bamana to meet her father who is unaware of her existence.
The story is at its best when it focuses on Anna time with her now an elderly father. His entries were certainly compelling but, as Anna herself notes, some of what he does is questionable indeed. I also found that Anna’s analysis of his entries detracted from the entries themselves. She would simply go on to reiterate what had just happened in the actual entry so that most of her observations came across as banal and or obvious. And why in the world did she have to keep on repeating his name and surname every time she mentioned/thought of him?
Anna’s experience at Bamana had its interesting moments. For example, she quickly realizes that to the locals she is white and that her view of African countries such as Bamana betrays her Westerner gaze (she takes for granted certain things, acts rashly without considering the repercussion of her actions, and applies her anglicized views on certain events and or encounters). Although few, Anna’s recollections of her childhood and her mother were also compelling. Anna’s mother seemed unwilling to admit that her daughter could be treated differently because of being Black, often downplaying Anna’s experiences of racism or using the ‘I see no color’ card
Most of the secondary characters, with perhaps the exception of Anna’s ‘new’ siblings, were rather one-dimensional or played bizarre roles in Anna’s story. For instance, she meets this man and most of their interactions have this quality of unease, a certain something that made me think he was a danger to her, but no, his terrible attempts at flirting and creepy behavior are all of a sudden brushed away (?).
Anna’s husband remains a nondescript figure while her daughter, who is in her twenties, comes across as a teenager more often than not, practically bullying her mother into divorcing her dad. The daughter has an eating disorder and this is something that is used to create tension between her and Anna. And I, for one, did not care for it. Why include this issue if you are just using it to add some ‘drama’?
The most eventful part of the story happens in the last portion of the novel. Here Anna and her relationship with her father and his country come to the forefront of the story (coincidentally it is here that her daughter, husband, weirdo guy are pushed to the sidelines).
As I said, I appreciate most of the themes incorporated in this novel and the author’s discussion on race, colonialism, poverty, and cultural differences. However, her characters often came across as little more than names on a page, Anna more so than her father. She was a housewife so the story addresses how that decision affected her life but still, even without a career/job one can have a personality, and Anna did not. She functions as a vehicle, someone who is there to move the story along and to make the most basic of observations. There was a lot of repetition, most of these were Anna reiterating something that has just been said (such her thinking ‘Anna is an anagram of Nana’ just after someone had told her that if you move the letters in Anna you get Nana and vice-versa). I also cared little for the present-tense of her narration.
Overall, this was a somewhat patchy novel and although I did not particularly care for it I would probably read something else by this author and I recommend prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆


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