House Girl has been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award and is listed as one of The Observer‘s “New Faces of Fiction”; one of The Millions‘ “Most Anticipated Books of the Year” ; one of The Guardian‘s “Best Summer Books” and one of Library Journal‘s “Books to Anticipate.” It’s safe to say it is one of the most anticipated publications of the year. I was anxious to see if the story lived up to all the hype and, for the most part, it did.
When her father stops paying her school fees, Belinda, a young Ghanaian village girl, is forced to leave her mother and small community and seek work as a house girl in the capital, Kumasi. Along with Mary, the eleven-year-old second house girl, she works a long day cooking and cleaning so that she may send money home. Not only does she excel at her job, but she has trained flighty, tempestuous Mary to be a good servant as well. When wealthy Nana visits from London, she notices how mature, kind and good-natured seventeen-year-old Belinda is. She also notices how well Mary behaves under Belinda’s guidance.
Nana’s own daughter has become a difficult, bad tempered, poorly behaved teen. Longing to have her daughter become sweet natured once more, Nana takes Belinda back to London with her. The hope is that having Belinda serve as a companion to the surly Amma will help the troubled teen become more even-tempered; Nana also hopes that Amma will open up to Belinda, so that Nana can work out if anything besides typical youthful moodiness is behind the change in Amma’s behavior.
Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. You can’t simply throw two teenagers together and have them become instant besties, which Nana quickly learns. Amma avoids Belinda, belittles her, and refuses to open up to her. When the two are forced to interact, Amma makes sure it is on her terms, which involve copious amounts of drinking and smoking. Feeling increasingly lost and isolated, Belinda fears that rather than her having a good influence on Amma, Amma will prove to be a corrupting influence on her.
This is a slice of life story which takes us through a small but relevant period of life for three young women. Belinda, whose life is completely dictated by others, is endlessly looking for a way forward. When she left home, her mother told her to pretend that home no longer existed; to make believe that after she had left a flood had destroyed the entire community. Belinda wants and needs security and having to deal with Amma’s capricious moods, to possibly have her job security dependent on how well she can relate to the mercurial young woman, is deeply challenging for her.
Mary does not have a personality suited to her station in life. Active, jubilant, flighty, feisty, outgoing and exuberant, she is a large character in a tiny body. It is not easy for her to have Belinda far away, and her phone calls to the older girl showcase her longing to have Belinda home and a touch of the resentment she feels at being left behind.
Amma – as a British-Ghanaian – is trying to find where she fits in the world, knowing that her race, among other factors, will always keep her from being perfectly comfortable in the land in which she was raised. However, her upbringing prevents her from feeling anything but uncomfortable in Ghana. Feeling as if she belongs nowhere, she lashes out at the people closest to her.
The tale works very well as a coming of age story in that it highlights how, regardless of one’s station in life, young adulthood is always a difficult period full of painful discoveries. A conversation between Amma and a former lover shows that the path of love can often be strewn with broken promises and crushed dreams. The tense relationships between Belinda and Mary and Belinda and Amma show how friendships can be strained by jealousies over what others have, what we want, and the general injustice of the universe, which tends to be felt very acutely during this time of life.
Easily the greatest strength of the story is its rich look at Ghanaian culture. The author conveys the beauty, frustration and difficult aspects of the land as a beautiful mosaic in the background of the novel, showcasing how we are the same on the inside the world over even as our external life experiences are vastly different.
There is one aspect of Ghanaian culture that I feel compelled to give a word of warning about. An LGBTQ+ character outs themselves to a friend during the course of the tale and it does not go well. Ghanaian culture has a negative view of the LGBTQ+ community and the initial conversation, in which the character discusses their sexuality with their friend (and many of the subsequent conversations on the issue), are fairly negative. That dilemma gets a mild resolution at the end of the novel, but it might be considered by some to be too little, too late. I did feel the author was trying hard to balance sensitivity and reality and in no way is the LGBTQ+ community negatively portrayed, but it serves to show how even the kindest people within the Ghanaian culture had no tolerance when it came to this issue. There was also discussion of how tolerance – even in Britain – is dependent on skin color, with a white woman being more tolerated for her sexual decisions than a black woman would be.
House Girl tackles some tough issues, so it is not always an easy read. It is an insightful one, though, which will take you outside your everyday experiences and let you look at the world in a whole new way. I would recommend this book to fans of coming of age stories and everyone who has loved the recommendations from Oprah’s Book Club; This novel fits perfectly into that milieu.