The daughter of a political refugee from Ghana who “ended up working on the railways in London” where he met her “half-caste” mother, Amma is anticipating the opening at the National of her play “The Last Amazon of Dahomey”, unbelievable success after its years of rejection. She is a middle-aged, black, promiscuous lesbian, who has mellowed somewhat from her youthful habit of heckling shows that “offended her political sensibilities”.
This gives a flavour of the twelve characters born female, each given a section in turn to portray her or “their” inner thoughts and experiences. They are all black, or of mixed race to some degree, all have suffered as the children of immigrants or through some childhood trauma, yet managed eventually to achieve professionally, materially, or to find emotional fulfilment. So this proves an unexpectedly upbeat read, with a “feel-good” ending for most of them. They are all clearly linked in groups of three, more tenuously overall, as blood relatives, friends or acquaintances. One of the most interesting aspects is how they perceive each other. Any loose ends to explain the connections between them are brought together at the end in the device of “the after party” to celebrate Amma’s success, with an epilogue to accommodate the two who could not attend.
Frenetically packed with often quirky detail, the narrative is surprisingly easy to read, given the lack of standard punctuation, until one notes how it is artfully contrived in the use of whole phrases, commas, short paragraphs and lots of white space to carry the reader along. This gives a vigour and energy to the prose, at the cost of seeming at times too gimmicky and glib.
In the same way, sharp insights and moving moments crop up frequently, but embedded in references to a horde of characters, often stereotyped to the point of caricature and parody, so numerous that it may be hard to keep track of them, or to know whether this is necessary since they may never reappear.
An ambitious novel with a “marmite effect”, this is a book with no plot, more an accumulation of impressions to deepen an understand of the life of women of colour, or perhaps give them an inspiring book to which to relate. Is this a work of literature meriting its Booker Prize win? Is it more likely to appeal to younger women? What do male readers really think of it, since men tend to receive rather dismissive treatment? I cannot answer any of these questions.
I avoided reading this until it became my book group’s choice, since I rightly feared an excess of strident pontification. However, examples of this – as when Amma and her friend Dominique somehow manage to launch into feminist topics at the end of a long party night involving drugs and booze – are offset by wry humour, self-parody and some unexpectedly nuanced arguments. So when Dominique’s new love Nzinga recalls sobbing over the four hundred years of slavery which the white man has a lot to answer for, she refrains from replying “that the African man had also sold Africans into slavery so it was a lot more complex than that.”
It feels about a hundred pages too long, my interest flagging over the rather pedestrian final sections set in rural Northumberland decades ago, perhaps because (apologies if I am wrong) the author has no real familiarity or rapport with this setting, but needed to show how people from very different environments may be linked.
Although I found it slick creative writing rather than profound (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe comes to mind) this novel certainly has the power to provoke discussion.