Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, “Ghana Must Go,” centers on the Sai family, a fractured clan of overachieving jet-setters who, like Selasi, are immigrants of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent. Like Selasi, the Sais lived in Brookline, where a small part of the novel is set. The family is decidedly Afropolitan, a term Selasi coined to describe herself and other urbane polyglots whose professional parents left Africa during the diaspora of the 1960s and ’70s.
Last year, Selasi appeared at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India with Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American who won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for “Open City,” a novel about a Nigerian graduate student in New York. Dinaw Mengestu — born in Ethiopia, raised in Chicago — recently won a MacArthur fellowship for his fiction (“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” was his debut) about Kenyans in the United States. The Afropolitan novel has become a small trend, of which “Ghana Must Go,” the story of a group of world citizens drawn back to the country their family left behind, is the latest entry. Selasi tells the story of a family breaking apart and coming back together at different times and on different continents.
Whatever their problems, each Sai has achieved a great deal of worldly success. The father, Kweku, is a surgeon “without equal.” Mother Fola, who once turned down a full scholarship to Georgetown Law, still turns heads in late middle age. Oldest son Olu: another surgeon, also tall and hunky. Gorgeous fraternal twins Kehinde and Taiwo: a famous visual artist and a child piano prodigy turned Columbia University law student, respectively. Baby Sadie: a hardworking (if comparatively unattractive) Yalie.
Selasi writes about class intelligently, and with a great deal of self-awareness. Kweku and Fola once suffered terribly in Africa but prospered in the United States, due in no small part to their diligence. Their children, second-generation American success stories, brush against the upper strata of educational and professional achievement, as well as its limitations. “For all of the hoopla about race . . . it is obvious to Sadie that all of them carry this patina of whiteness, or WASP-ness more so: be they Black, Latin, Asian, they’re Ivy League strivers,” Selasi writes of her alma mater, Yale.
Average readers might worry that all this accomplishment might be a bit wearying, and so does Selasi: The family unravels in part because of its pressures.
The novel’s problems stem from the fact that its author seems over-fond of her characters, zealously reporting their every emotional nuance in lengthy passages of free indirect discourse. A paragraph in which Kehinde reflects on how much he appreciates his personal assistant boggles:
“In his mind, in his skin, sure, could go on without her, a spirit, just visiting, a dream, passing through — but the outside world? Object world? Art world? The body world? Not without Sanga. No. Not for a day. He’d drift, red balloon-like, away from his body and up through his art to the clouds, where he’d pop but for Sanga, the string twirling earthward below him, unfurling in air like a braid come undone.”
The Sais are similarly enthralled with one another. Sadie marvels at Taiwo’s beauty. Taiwo sneaks into Kehinde’s bedroom in order to marvel at him as he sleeps. Olu marvels at Kweku’s professional accomplishments, and Fola, in an especially purple interlude, marvels at his sexual prowess: “The way he made love, as if now were forever, gone deaf to the rest, as if breathing were music and hovels were ballrooms and all that they needed to do was dance.”
Will readers marvel at the Sais? It depends. While those averse to long alliterative riffs should steer clear, those with a healthy tolerance stand to gain a unique perspective into the lives of a group underrepresented in American letters, at least until recently.