Sankofa: A Novel
“Onuzo has created a character that readers will want to cheer for. She has also crafted a believable and powerful story filled with hope and forgiveness.”
Sankofa, a novel by Chibundu Onuzo, explores loss and rediscovering how one’s life can change in a second. Anna, the protagonist, is a mixed-race woman who has recently lost her mother and is separated from her husband Robert. She has a grown daughter named Rose who struggles with an eating disorder. Rose is the opposite of her mother in that she focuses on a busy career while Anna did not become an architect. She also gave up her art. “Perhaps I gave up too easily. The paintings were still my garage.”
When she discovers Robert’s infidelity, Anna finds herself no longer the doting wife but a woman who has lost her identity with the breakup of her marriage and death of her mother. Who is she now? She never thought she would lose herself. “You think it can never happen to you. It is the hubris that makes daily life possible. The bomb explodes for someone else; the sky always crashes on their head, until the ticking parcel stops with you.”
Throughout the novel, Anna is rediscovering her own identity, and, after her mother’s death, she also discovers the diary of a man named Francis Aggrey and learns that Francis is her father. “The next day I continue with Francis Aggrey’s diary. His voice is familiar to me now—his dry wit, his flashes of anger, the pride that keeps him aloof despite his longing to make friends.”
The more she dives in the diary, the more she longs to meet her mysterious father. She decides to take a risk and travel to Africa to meet her father. Embarking on this journey expands Anna’s world, which has mostly encompassed her husband’s and daughter’s lives. Anna does not have her own world without them but by taking this leap, she discovers that she can be more than a wife and mother. Onuzo beautifully creates a story that many women can relate to regardless of their race.
Onuzo has allowed both women and men to see the inner turmoil one can feel when the only world they have known suddenly crumbles. Can someone pick up the pieces and start fresh? This question is played throughout this captivating book that takes a mid-life crisis and combines it with larger social issues such as racism and politics. Without explaining what a person of a mixed-raced may feel, Onuzo has allowed the reader glimpses through Anna’s challenges. “they said I talked like a white person, thought like one, and, worst of all, I danced white.” The racism Anna faced her father had also confronted when he lived abroad.
When Anna finally meets her father, who was the president of a country in Africa, he shares with her the racism he had endured. “black men were treated like animals. I mean I was spat at in public. On more than one occasion.” Then years later, Anna’s own daughter Rose is subjected to racism when another young model makes a derogatory comment regarding Rose’s legs, which Anna felt led to her daughter’s eating disorder. “Rose quit modeling after that. Then a year later she quit food.”
Onuzo has created intriguing characters, yet it feels at times that Rose and Anna’s father are not fully portrayed, but perhaps this was intentional on Onuzo’s part since this is Anna’s story of finding herself and connecting her past with her present.
When Anna visits her father’s homeland and a woman she meets takes her to a village where Anna encounters a girl who is chained because the girl’s uncle believes she is a witch, the woman asks Anna: “Don’t people do bad things to each other in your country?” With this very question Onuzo brilliantly shows the prejudice people may have about other cultures and countries. “[Anna] had never thought about the cases of abuse [she] read about in London, of babies found in quiet suburbs with cigarette burns on their skin. . . .”
With incredibly insightful passages, Onuzo paints the journey of self-discovery amid social issues and encourages the reader to cheer on Anna who has a quiet confidence that has been unleashed with the break-up of her marriage. During turmoil one can peel away the pain and discover something that has always been inside oneself. When Anna says to her father “In London I’m a nobody,” he replies, “I find that hard to believe. A woman bold enough to fly all this way to meet me, to stay on alone at the request of a stranger, to challenge me at every turn.”
Anna is far from a nobody. Onuzo has created a character that readers will want to cheer for. She has also crafted a believable and powerful story filled with hope and forgiveness.