When I first saw the synopsis of Hold, Michael Donkor’s debut novel, not to mention its beautiful cover, I immediately knew I’d want to read this book. Belinda, an obedient and dutiful house-girl in Kumasi, is summoned to London at the behest of the family she works for to deal with a disobedient relative, Amma. Amma, born in London to Ghanaian parents, seems to be going off the rails; but nobody knows that this is because she’s struggling with her own sexuality. Belinda has to navigate this new and confusing metropolis while missing her younger friend Mary, whom she worked alongside in Kumasi, and whose rebellious nature both bothered and amused her. As Belinda and Amma move from mutual dislike and incomprehension to the beginnings of a friendship, they both realise that there’s more to the other one than meets the eye.
Hold is at its best when exploring how foreign London looks through Belinda’s eyes, and how strange and archaic Belinda’s world seems to Amma. It’s set in 2002, so even readers who know south London well will feel a little off-kilter, and Donkor does a good job of recalling the teenage experience at the turn of the millennium (I’m not a Londoner, but I was only a few years younger than Amma in 2002!) The exoticising conventions of Western fiction about Africa, with their detailing of ‘unusual’ practices and customs, are turned on their head as Belinda explores the local area:
Belinda walked just behind Nana as they made their way along noisy Brixton High Road… The sky was bored, the traffic was angry. Everything around them beeped or screamed… Three striped white vans with swirling blue lights moaned. Buses bent round corners looking like sick caterpillars. Both Nana and Belinda were careful to avoid stubby black bins that choked on packets and bottles, and that made Nana hiss ‘Lambeth Council’ like those words were bad kenkey on her tongue. A tall man with wheels on his shoes sailed through it all peacefully… On her left… a group of children played silver drums… Two women with flopping hats stopped to dance in front of the band, wiggling their bottoms and holding their breasts.
As Belinda gets to know Amma better, Amma brings her along to a party, where she observes what’s going on in similarly anthropological terms: ‘A white boy with dreadlocks … hooked his fingers into the belt loops of a girl’s jeans. He pulled her towards him. The girl didn’t mind, even though she stumbled because the rug bunched under her… They both started attacking with tongues and lips.’
There’s great material here about race – Amma’s experiences as a black girl in Brixton versus Belinda’s navigation of her identity as a Ghanaian woman – and about sexuality and its intersection with ethnicity and culture.
However, I found Hold to be a laborious read, largely because of Donkor’s writing. As the long passage above indicates, his prose tends to be a bit convoluted, whether he’s writing from Amma’s point of view or Belinda’s. Dialogue is a particular problem. To an extent, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one; the Ghanaian characters living in Kumasi are obviously speaking with a very distinctive rhythm, mixing English and Twi, and it’s not possible for me to make any judgment about the authenticity of this kind of speech. But unfortunately, although his London teenagers have different speech patterns, I encountered many of the same issues with their dialogue. Here’s Amma talking to her friend Helena:
“And now for that promised hashy hash.” Helena stopped to change the CD from De La Soul to Bob Dylan, wiped her hands on her faded T-shirt with Babar on it, then reached for the wooden pipe to her left and tapped ash from its bowl. She wrestled with her pockets. “The dark cloud hasn’t, like, lifted then, ma petite soeur?” Helena said, peering into the retrieved baggie.
“Obviously I’m talking about how you’ve been Lily Long Face all afternoon.”
“You told me I should “do pensive”, so I’m doing – “
” – And what about how dry you were at Max’s? Mmm? I needed you there, man.”
“I was there.”
“Come on, Am. Support was required. Lavender needed controlling. She’s becoming a real joke. It’s like she’s forgotten that she’s actually, er, supposed to be a feminist?”
Donkor seems to be trying to approximate a distinctive mix of popular private-school phrases (the use of French) alongside teenage girls’ tendency to uptalk and add filler words alongside fake street slang (‘man’ and ‘dry’), and for me, it’s just too much, all at once. Despite the attempt at authenticity and the thought that’s gone into these girls’ mixed linguistic influences, he’s ended up with something that doesn’t sound like a conversation anybody would actually have. Moreover, there’s simply too much going on in this scene – the ‘period’ details with the CDs and Babar, the fact that we have to follow this conversation with few dialogue tags when the girls are talking about something we don’t know about beforehand – and, like the longer descriptive passages in the book, it ends up feeling cluttered.
My other issue with Hold was the structure. The novel moves between Amma and Belinda’s narratives, but we get about two-thirds Belinda to one-third Amma, and I would have preferred a more equal distribution. By the end of the book, I felt that Amma’s struggle with her lesbianism had been short-changed and unresolved, and much of the more interesting material in her story was still to come. In contrast, Belinda’s character arc feels painfully small given her page-space, although, as I said above, she’s a great observer. There’s such huge potential here, for both plot and character, but I ended up feeling very disappointed.
I received a free proof copy of Hold from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 12th July 2018.