Maame, the 25-year-old protagonist of this engaging debut novel from Jessica George, certainly has her hands full. She lives in her parental home, with a minimal social life, and is the primary caregiver for her ailing father, only passing the nursing torch over to Dawoud, a lovely and patient paid carer who hails from Yemen, when she goes off to her office job in central London.
Maame’s mother is physically absent: She manages a family business in Ghana, but pops up frequently throughout the narrative with phone calls, requests for money, and agenda-driven texts (“…a friend of mine has a son who is now single. His girlfriend died enough time ago. I’ll give him your number so the 2 of you can talk. Thanks.”). Maame’s older brother, James, who focused on friends over family early on, is deeply involved as a coattail-rider in the music business: One of his friends has hit the big time, so James is a social-media manager, chauffeur, and tour mate all in one, and pretty nearly as absent in terms of family life as is their mother.
Feeling overstretched and anxious, Maame attempts to talk to her mother about her concerns, but gets them batted back in her face quickly; her mother is more interested in how Maame will meet a potential husband, pushing her to go to church and to get out more in general. On top of it all, Maame is not comfortable sharing the specifics of her home-life situation with anyone due to her family’s mottos — or warnings, rather — about oversharing beyond familial boundaries: “‘They just won’t understand, you know?’” she’s always been told. “‘We’re Ghanaian, so we do things differently. … It’s not something to spread around. … Family business.’” So Maame doesn’t share the full story, not even with her besties, Nia and Shu, though her exchanges with them are infused with humor, love, and the kind of shorthand communication that comes from years of common history.
Instead, Maame often turns to Google for answers, plying the search engine with questions and statements that range from “Back pain in your mid-twenties” and “Jobs with the happiest employees” to “Where do you wear a yellow suit to?”, “How long do guys wait before asking a girl out on a date?”, “How to prepare for a first date”, and — my own personal favorite — ”Is pre-date exhaustion a thing?”
Maame’s job only adds to her stress levels. She’s an assistant to a hassled, nervous manager who basically can’t cope, and who dumps on Maame at every opportunity: “[M]y day mainly consists of rearranging her diary to avoid all the clashes she’s added in overnight, managing her expenses, making her cups of Earl Grey tea, then cleaning her mugs in the bathroom sink.” Levels of toxicity in the office are high, and while her high-ranking manager gets coddled, Maame is the target of microaggressions, bullying, and palpably unfair treatment.
When her mother says she is coming for an extended visit to their London home and encourages Maame to find her own place, Maame is determined to make changes. She begins to rethink her circumstances and what she wants from life, as well as the impact her family’s dynamics are having on her well-being. (“I knew to keep family matters private from outsiders but never considered the secrets we were possibly keeping from one another.”) She moves in with two friendly, socially active, and motivated roommates — new providers of both wanted and unwanted advice — gets herself a new job with a small publishing company that promises in-house professional training, and applies to a writing program on a whim. The icing on the cake? A handsome man, Ben, appears to be courting her.
Then a heart-breaking, life-changing event occurs, and Maame is initially overwhelmed. On the other hand, the full force of her friendships with Nia and Shu come into high relief: The scenes of them quietly, calmly, and firmly coming to Maame’s much-needed emotional rescue are some of the most impressive and illustrative in the book.
So, too, are certain scenes in which Maame is simply observing her surroundings. In one of the earliest pages she describes her kitchen, deftly weaving the weight of her responsibilities right on in there: “It’s a small, functional area with a gas stove (in desperate need of cleaning, but I assign that task to tomorrow evening), an oven with a missing grill door, a tall fridge, a smaller freezer filled with various unidentified let-me-not-waste-this food pieces (sorting through assigned to Saturday afternoon) and a washing machine that dances out from under the countertop when it’s on, but when empty is just light enough to push back with the weight of my body.”
This evocative — and, at times, gloriously messy — coming-of-age story tackles enormous contemporary topics and issues, including racism, cultural barriers, mental and emotional instability, growing-up pains, and debilitating loss. Luckily, Maame’s voice — her clear, sharp-eyed, detail-focused, honest voice — provides a consistent, compelling thread throughout the narrative, whether she’s losing direction during a buzzy night out on the town, coming to grips with the end of a relationship, or recognizing the inherent kindness of an acquaintance that she’d previously missed. Altogether “Maame” — thanks to Maame — is a thought-provoking and enjoyable debut.
By Jessica George
St. Martin’s, 320 pages, $27.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @daneetsteffens.