Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo review – a journey into heritage

The difficult experience of feeling stuck between seemingly irreconcilable states is at the core of Chibundu Onuzo’s accomplished third novel. The mixed racial heritage of Sankofa’s fiftysomething protagonist, Anna Bain, is the most powerful manifestation of this. As a Welsh-Bamanian (Bamana is Onuzo’s fictional west African state), London-based Anna is made to constantly confront notions of difference and belonging. Anna, who was raised by her white mother, remembers that, as a teenager, white friends were desperate to touch her hair, wanted to know “if food tasted different with thicker lips”. In the early years of motherhood, she was once assumed to be the nanny of her white-passing daughter, Rose.

The novel opens with “aloof” Anna stuck at a particularly bewildering kind of existential crossroads. After more than 20 years of marriage, throughout which she has kept a lid on her artistic ambitions, she has separated from her unfaithful husband. Her relationship with her high-flying daughter is in flux. Most poignantly, Anna’s mother has just passed away.

In her mother’s belongings, Anna uncovers a diary, written in the late 1960s, belonging to Francis Aggrey. Aggrey was a student from the fictional Diamond Coast; while studying in London, he became part of a set of young African scholars agitating for their native countries’ freedom from colonial rule. Through excerpts from these diaries, the plot rapidly delivers us to Anna’s discovery that Aggrey is her father. After his studies, Aggrey returned to his homeland. There he transformed himself into a revolutionary who became the first president of the newly independent Bamana – a country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Ghana. The novel briskly tracks Anna’s wrestling with feelings of abandonment and loss, and follows her literal and figurative journey to try to connect with her father.

In her acknowledgments, Onuzo identifies Rachel Cusk’s work as providing her with inspiration. Both the portrayal of a coolly distant protagonist who closely controls her emotions and the artfully spare sentences demonstrate Cusk’s influence on this lean novel. While the uncluttered style is admirable, at times it leads to some of the book’s potentially complex messages about identity landing in a slightly heavy-handed manner. However, the slick pacing and unpredictable developments – especially in the depiction of Anna’s enigmatic father – keep the reader alert right up to the novel’s exhilarating ending. Here, though some might find the tonal shift jarring, Onuzo lifts the narrative into an entirely unexpected space. She shows that the healing of fractures and a desire for wholeness can be achieved in the most unexpected of places.

Sankofa is published by Virago (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order a copy from guardianbookshop,com. Delivery charges may apply.

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