Eddie Signwriter is a book about choices—personal, interpersonal and communal. Do we determine the course of our lives or do our environmental circumstances dicate our direction and fate? Kwasi Dankoh, who becomes a painting apprentice and assumes the identity of Eddie Signwriter, seems to be blowing with the wind, even though he never follows others expectations and often strikes out on his own. All of his decisions as a child are made for him—where to live, his education, and which parent he grows up with.
One of Kwasi’s rare moments of childhood happiness is with his grandfather. “When his grandfather smiled, his head opened with happiness along the wide hinge of his mouth. His tongue was like a cross-section of cured pink ham. His laugh—hí- hí- hí- hí- hí—was a long stutter of happiness.” Readers can enjoy this infectious description of Kwasi’s grandfather and wonder why the author did not include more of their relationship in the story.
As a teen, Kwasi’s social circle widens, when he is befirended by his teacher, John Beiako; meets John’s lady friend, Nana Aforiwaa; and falls for Nana’s niece, Celeste. Readers are deftly drawn into a culturally clanish area in Ghana, when Nana is found dead. Socially accepted opinions, perceptions and prejudice about the likely culprit being Kwasi (directly or indirectly) are displayed with vigor, as Kwasi is banned from the village and sent away. Kwasi takes the death to heart and internalizes the community’s misplaced blame. He continues running away from his perceived guilt and searches for someone or somewhere that will provide redemption. His journey takes him to Ghana’s capital Accra and as an illegal immigrent to France.
The sense of alienation and loneliness that Mr. Schwartzman ingrains in Kwasi’s character and behavior is very believable and well written, but also has the dual effect of distancing the reader from deeply identifying with and empathizing with the protagonist. The author’s strength is in taking the reader to emotional and physical locations that they may not otherwise experience or encounter.
Eddie Signwriter makes it unavoidable to ask personal and ethical questions that are often hushed, dismissed, or ignored. How do we live with pain? What do we do with guilt (valid or not)? Is the world we are born into subject to change and individual will or is it predetermined and beyond our control? Does Kwasi (Eddie) ever come to terms with the choices he’s made, and did he actually have any choice or free will to begin with?