The God Child is a novel filled with poetry: ‘I thought of the stories my mother told me of my birth into this pale-moon world: white blonde nurses, white corridors, white walls, white floors in the children’s ward of the Marienkrankenhaus.’ Maya is born in Germany to Ghanaian parents, and the book jumps from her time living there, to living in England, and her visits to Ghana. She grows up being in awe of and embarrassed by her mother, whose house stands out on their street because she hangs her laundry outside, who always leaves price tags on her gifts, and who always makes a dramatic entrance: ‘She was talking and laughing and waving her hands and everyone was looking at her as if she had taken the little bulbs from all the lanterns and put them inside of her, and I wished that sometimes she would just turn the light off.’
But her mother refuses to turn that light off: ‘as always, there was gold trapped beneath her skin’ and it’s with the arrival of her cousin Kojo, that Maya begins to understand why. While Maya tries on her ‘new voice’ as she moves from country to country, and is told by her art teacher that she must copy and steal work from other people in order to succeed, Kojo tells her about the history of their family: how they were once royalty and their wealth has been stolen. When Maya tells her friend Christine about this, she doesn’t believe her. Christine, whose house is ‘white and standalone’, and who, along with her classmates, enjoys touching Maya’s hair and skin, ‘passing [her] round on their laps like a doll’, and invites Maya to play with her white Barbies and invent stories — so long as those stories fit in with the Western narrative she is familiar with. Christine and the other white children do not want to hear about colonialism.
Kojo goes on to tell Maya that school does not give them ‘the history we are looking for, [my teacher] speaks only of his own life.’ He says it is therefore their job, Maya and Kojo’s, to resurrect their own history, to give voice to it and create a museum to reclaim the narrative of their kingdom, which has been appropriated and twisted. ‘It was what we had to do. Recreate what had happened; not just on the pages, but in life too.’
Maya takes on the role of the god child, a Akwadaa Nyame, ‘one who could hear the universe’s whisperings more clearly that the noise of the world around them… making right at each turn, the things that had formerly gone wrong.’ She and Kojo pledge to not only open a museum but write a book of history, and whilst that book is referred to inside this novel, the novel in turn becomes that book.
I have read several reviews of this novel that criticise the pacing and the structure as being fragmented and inconsistent. And whilst no book is perfect, I think to criticise those things is to ignore that at least some of that is very intentional. Ayim tells us that this book will be different right at the beginning: ‘I had been witness to a transformation; from a narrative too large, too unwieldy, too unconcerned with the small and the human, too couched in arrogance and entitlement — to one of work, nobility, loyalty, fidelity.’ The first narrative she is referring to is the colonisers’ narrative. A sweeping story that refuses to focus on the human. By focusing instead on characters’ small moments, and jumping from point to point, this novel shows how difficult it is for someone like Maya, whose story has been taken from them, to rebuild that story in its entirety. And, yes, that does mean, as Maya herself says, sometimes she ‘skips pages in the book’, and that, along with not providing translations for non-English words scattered throughout the text, tells the reader that they need to pay more attention. They need to do some of the work, too. The reader cannot, should not, be passive.
This book is like an art installation: different pieces that you pause on, that you don’t always know the full story behind. Jumping from one point to another so that, like Maya, who looks ‘at [her] reflection in the mirror, half there, half in another place’ the reader is sometimes made to feel lost, to have the narrative rug pulled out from under their feet. That might feel uncomfortable. Dare I say, that is the point.
This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please share your thoughts and observations below.